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Arnold School of Public Health

  • Darby Mihelich

Air Force legacy to follow in family footsteps as public health officer

May 13, 2024 | Erin Bluvas,

With her elementary school years spent in California and the past 10 in the Midlands, there was a constant theme in Darby Mihelich’s bicoastal upbringing: service. As members of the United States Air Force, Mihelich’s parents inspired her to pursue a career as a public health officer in the military branch that had become a second home to them all.

“Hearing her stories of duty in Southwest Asia, where she protected personnel from biohazards and provided aid, made a big impact on me,” Mihelich says of her mother, who served as a bioenvironmental engineer. “Despite her frequent deployments, she always stressed the importance of keeping both airmen and civilians safe and healthy.”

My experience at USC has been nothing short of fantastic (and) has provided me with an enriching and dynamic environment to grow academically, socially and personally.

Darby Mihelich

It felt like a natural choice for Mihelich to follow in the footsteps of her two older sisters and attend USC for her bachelor’s degree. The public health major has spent the past four years amassing enriching experiences and lifelong memories.

A two-month Public Health in the Tropics Internship took Mihelich to Kenya, where she worked with HIV-positive mothers and children as a part of the pediatric unit in the School for International Training. She used epidemiology to address factors contributing to malnutrition rates and health promotion to emphasize the importance of the local vaccination and nutritional programs.

“This immersive experience inspired me to join the Maternal and Child Health Student Association, where I've connected with doctoral students and further deepened my involvement in the field,” Mihelich says.

Darby Mihelich
Darby Mihelich graduates in May with a B.A. in Public Health.

She also traveled to Costa Rica with the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children, where she helped facilitate access to primary care services, led health education initiatives, taught children vital oral hygiene practices and empowered women through self-defense classes. “These diverse experiences have not only broadened my perspective but have also fueled my passion for making a positive impact in public health,” Mihelich says.

Closer to home, she found joy in her campus life as well as living in the state’s capital city. From the array of available clubs and organizations to energy-charged sport competitions, Mihelich has loved that there are always new interests to explore, events to attend and challenges to tackle.

“My experience at USC has been nothing short of fantastic, and Columbia serves as the ideal setting for college life that caters perfectly to students,” she says. “There’s always something exciting happening on campus, and one of the things I appreciate most is the increasing diversity I've noticed, which has enriched my interactions and broadened my perspectives. USC has provided me with an enriching and dynamic environment to grow academically, socially and personally.”

Her time at the Arnold School played a big role in Mihelich’s college experience as well.

“What I loved most is how expansive the field of public health is – it offers countless opportunities whether you're interested in business, health care, speech pathology, or any other area,” she says. “Public health truly surrounds us and delving into it provides valuable insights into understanding communities and the factors shaping them.”

Public health truly surrounds us and delving into it provides valuable insights into understanding communities and the factors shaping them.

Darby Mihelich

An insider tip from Mihelich: actively engage with professors and build connections with them as these individuals offer not just academic guidance but also real-world insights and networking opportunities that can greatly enhance learning experiences and career prospects. For Mihelich, those mentors were epidemiology professor Anthony Alberg and instructor Kersten Cope.

“Dr. Alberg's expertise in epidemiology has not only deepened my understanding of the field but also inspired me to pursue my passion for it further,” Mihelich says of the department chair, who also helped steer her academic and professional aspirations. “Ms. Cope holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite professors. Over the years, she has witnessed my growth firsthand and has been a constant source of encouragement and wisdom.”

With support from her mentors, the May graduate has firmed up her next steps. She will enroll in the Master of Public Health in Epidemiology program at George Washington University this fall. Then she’ll return to the family tradition of serving in the U.S. Air Force.

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