January 30, 2023 | Erin Bluvas, firstname.lastname@example.org
As an undergrad in the University of South Carolina’s school of business (before it was named for Darla Moore), Willie (“Billy”) Oglesby volunteered a lot. The South Carolina native’s service roles included HIV prevention efforts for gay and lesbian youth.
“It was the 90s, so it was not an easy thing to do,” he says. “It taught me a lot about inequities, social justice issues, and what we now call the social determinants of health as well as cultural issues and racism – all of those things that we know contribute so significantly to morbidity and mortality, I saw firsthand.”
Oglesby was on a career trajectory to earn an MBA after graduation, and then he planned to work in the corporate finance world. But his fellow volunteers had other advice. They were graduate students in the Arnold School of Public Health (before it was named for Norman Arnold), and they encouraged him to consider a similar path.
“’I don’t even know what that is’,” he remembers telling them. “’Isn’t that just the people who test the water and do restaurant inspections?’”
Their responses offered Oglesby his first glimpse into the vast breadth of public health and helped him realize that his business degree would be an asset to the field. Oglesby’s reaction?
“’Who do I talk to?’”
Donna Richter was chair of the Arnold School’s Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (then known as the Department of Health Promotion and Education) at the time, and she filled Oglesby in on the range of possibilities public health offered for his career. She not only convinced him to enroll in her department’s master’s program, but she hired him as a graduate research assistant as well.
That research assistantship turned into a research associate position, and that master’s program turned into a doctoral program. In all, Oglesby spent 10 years at the Arnold School – amassing the program-building expertise that would result in his recruitment into leadership positions at other universities.
One type of mentor has walked the path and provides advice on how to follow in their footsteps ... The other type of mentor is someone who is more like a coach; someone who knows you well enough to help you leverage your assets to continue to be successful.
During his decade at USC, Oglesby served as an integral member for Richter’s research projects and her administration duties as she moved from chair to interim dean and then dean before leading the South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health (then known as the South Carolina Public Health Institute) as executive director.
Harris Pastides, a member of the epidemiology and biostatistics department, was moving up the ranks as well. Pastides’ career would include serving as dean for the Arnold School, Vice President for the Office of Research and President of the university.
In the mid-2000s, Pastides embarked on a major project that would bridge his move from the VPR office to the presidency: earning the university’s first Carnegie Foundation designation in community engagement. Oglesby was his right-hand man.
Not long after they successfully applied for and achieved USC’s classification as a community-engaged institution, various universities began calling. One of them was Kent State University. They were building a brand-new college of public health, and they wanted Oglesby to help build it.
Intrigued, Oglesby asked Pastides for advice.
“’Billy, do you want to stay here at Carolina where you are comfortable, where it is low risk, where you know everybody and you can be very successful or do you want to go somewhere where you don’t know anyone, you don’t have a safety net, but you can prove to the world that you can still be successful standing on your own two feet? That’s fundamentally the decision you need to make,’” he recalls Pastides saying.
“It was very clarifying for me,” Oglesby says.
One of the most important reasons you should choose USC versus other places is not only the quality of the faculty but also because being a student in the Arnold School, you are in an intellectual ecosystem that you are not going to be able to get at other places.
As one of the founding faculty at Kent State’s College of Public Health, Oglesby did a lot of everything. He applied for (and was awarded) grants, conducted research, worked with the surrounding communities, became tenured and served as program director. He worked on accreditation, budget and curriculum efforts – everything needed to create a college.
Oglesby’s community work exploded when the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010. Hospitals throughout Northeast Ohio asked for his help with the community needs assessments that were required under the new legislation. He helped them achieve public health goals from within their health care systems.
“That was when I made the move to population health,” says Oglesby, who also completed his MBA during this time – focusing on health care and enhancing his ability to guide these health care systems.
After nearly seven years at Kent State, Oglesby was recruited yet again for a ground-up endeavor. Having connected with Dean David Nash at the nation’s first College of Population Health (located at Thomas Jefferson University) during a week-long intensive training program, the two stayed in touch.
When the college’s associate dean announced her retirement, Nash asked Oglesby to throw his hat in the ring. The next few years saw the college making major changes: restructuring all graduate programs to meet the needs of working professionals (something Oglesby was intimately familiar with based on his own experiences) and scaling up the programs to enable more individuals to earn their degrees.
From value stream mapping and workflows to training staff and faculty in process improvement methods, Oglesby applied everything he had learned from his educational and professional experiences to his new role. And it worked.
Graduation rates increased, and students completed their degrees at a faster pace. They also saw more value in what they were learning because of how the courses had been restructured to focus on tools and methods they could immediately deploy in their day-to-day work.
When Nash stepped down in 2019, Oglesby was appointed as interim dean. In 2022, the college made the position official.
You are able to move around to a whole bunch of different places – both geographically and within the field – and still do what you want at your core – which is to help people. Your public health degree is your passport to move around, collecting stamps at organizations and agencies around the world.
Among the many individuals and experiences Oglesby credits for preparing him to make this level of impact, his USC mentors and degrees/work are proud members of the list. Richter and Pastides stand out as important advisors, representing what Oglesby considers to be the two main types of mentors.
“One type of mentor has walked the path and provides advice on how to follow in their footsteps. While I didn’t mirror her career exactly, I did have a similar trajectory to Donna Richter, who was this important mentor to me,” Oglesby says. “The other type of mentor is someone who is more like a coach; someone who knows you well enough to help you leverage your assets to continue to be successful. For me, this was Harris Pastides.”
Time and reflection have also clarified the value of his Arnold School degrees for Oglesby.
“One of the most important reasons you should choose USC versus other places is not only the quality of the faculty but also because being a student in the Arnold School, you are in an intellectual ecosystem that you are not going to be able to get at other places,” says Oglesby, who took classes in business, social work, education and other areas during his Ph.D. program. “Taking coursework in other colleges gives you a broader interdisciplinary perspective that is absolutely crucial in public health.”
After more than two decades in the field, Oglesby couldn’t be more enthusiastic about public health and the opportunities it offers students.
“You are embarking on a career trajectory that will not pigeonhole you in any one area,” he says. “It’s a trajectory because it’s not a prescribed path that has only one job option at the end. Public health offers a lot more flexibility, and that flexibility creates excitement and work enjoyment.”
The two-time alumnus finds these opportunities for change and new challenges to be personally enriching and one of the best aspects of the field.
“You are able to move around to a whole bunch of different places – both geographically and within the field – and still do what you want at your core – which is to help people,” Oglesby says. “Your public health degree is your passport to move around, collecting stamps at organizations and agencies around the world.”