Online master’s degree program fits all lifestyles

Jennifer Miller
December 19, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A military veteran. A married couple that works in long-term care. A president of a dental practice. A newly wed.

These folks likely would have never crossed paths if it were not for one significant, common goal of earning a Master of Health Administration (MHA) degree.

These adult learners seeking to enhance and advance their careers through education were able to do so through a new online program with Penn State World Campus and the Department of Health Policy and Administration in the College of Health and Human Development.

This inaugural cohort of 21 students will see the culmination of the 13-course, 49-credit, 28-month program at the Dec. 20 commencement ceremony at University Park as each student receives a diploma, which they were able to earn while working, raising children, running businesses and practicing medicine.

That’s because the MHA program fits every lifestyle.

Kevin M. Lynch, retired U.S. Navy submariner

Kevin M. Lynch sought out a master’s degree program to become a member of an executive team for a nonprofit hospital. He chose Penn State’s MHA program because, “Penn State has the largest living alumni association in the country. Becoming a part of this would allow me to benefit from the association’s far reaching membership, and to contribute to their success as an available resource in the future.”

In addition to his full-time job, Lynch has a very active lifestyle. He enjoys cycling, collecting wine and volunteering at sporting events. For the past ten years he acted as an elite women’s escort in the Boston Marathon.

“Enrolling in this program was a well thought out decision. To that extent, I put the learning experience at the front of my lifestyle choices. It was manageable and I was able to find a good balance,” Lynch said. “The opportunity to learn was limited only by your desire and personal efforts. The resources were unrestricted and the faculty was eager to help you understand and master the course material.”

Lynch served in the Navy for more than 12 years as a submariner, where he also trained to be an executive chef. When he medically retired from the Navy, he took a per diem position in a hospital business office. He spent the next 16 years with HCA Healthcare in multiple leadership roles. Lynch worked in finance at two hospitals and was recruited to the division office where he oversaw 17 hospital managed care departments. Later, he requested a transfer to the flagship hospital, JFK Medical Center, a facility-based position “where I could impact the patient experience.”

Wanting to continue on his career trajectory, Lynch applied for a COO development program. His application was declined because he never earned a college degree. In 2009, he enrolled at a private college where he accelerated through the program and graduated summa cum laude in 2012. That summer he complete an Emergency and Disaster Management course offered by FEMA.

With the MHA degree, Lynch hopes to work with Massachusetts state legislators “to address the high recidivism rates among mental and behavioral health patients within the department of corrections.” Lynch’s MHA capstone paper, a requirement for graduation, is on the same subject.

“What a graduate of this program takes away is far greater than a diploma. A student can expect to develop a life-long professional relationship with the program directors, members of the cohort, and Penn State University,” Lynch said. “The value of this education is limited only by the student’s drive to be a positive change element in today’s health care environment.”

Dan Mills and Meredith Mills, married couple that manages a long-term care facility

It was Dan Mills’ mother who saw an advertisement for the MHA program while at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, where she’s worked for more than 40 years. Dan and his wife, Meredith, had not been considering graduate school as they both just began new careers with their family’s long-term care business. However, the online program was alluring.

“After researching the extremely limited options, we agreed that not only was Penn State reaching into a new and needed area of study for full-time executives, but we also were interested in being tied into the extensive alumni network offered by Penn State,” Meredith said.

Meredith Mills raises a hand in class

Meredith Mills raises a hand in class during a two-week stint at University Park as part of the online MHA program.

IMAGE: Paul Hazi

In order for Dan and Meredith to earn their degrees simultaneously while working full-time, they needed a program that was flexible. Both work every other weekend and often well into the evenings as personal care home administrators. Not to mention caring for their two dogs, cat, and 11 chickens at home.

“There would have been no way for us to be tied to a classroom schedule, even if it were to be on weekends and evenings,” Meredith said. “I think especially with the health care industry being 'open' all the time, this is an ideal way to complete a degree.”

Dan and Meredith did not always work in the long-term care field. Each left corporate careers after Meredith’s grandmother died in 2011. Her grandfather, who later passed away, asked Meredith and her husband to join the family’s long-term care business.

“He lived to see us get involved in the business and start to grow in our enthusiasm to continue his legacy,” Meredith said.

While Dan and Meredith were eager to take on this new challenge, they realized they did not have the knowledge necessary compared to more seasoned members of the industry.

“The MHA program really helped to change that, and allowed us to gain respect from our peers and the families and residents we work with,” Meredith said. “We have been able to truly speak to the challenges that our residents go through in dealing with the healthcare system, and support them as they make difficult decisions. This program has given us not only the knowledge but also much more confidence in our job roles. We feel we have made tremendous growth and truly started to feel like leaders in our company.”

Arelvis Narvaez, president of private practice dental office

Arelvis Narvaez opened her own dentistry practice the same year she began the MHA program. Because the MHA program is flexible and the bulk of the work can be completed online, Narvaez was able to balance running her new practice while earning her master’s degree.

Narvaez graduated from dentistry school in 1993. For five years she worked at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Dental School where she assisted students and post-graduate residents in clinics. Later, she moved to California where she worked at two different dental clinics before opening her own practice.

Arelvis Narvaez gives presentation

Arelvis Narvaez, president of private practice dental office, gives a presentation at University Park as part of a two-week on-campus session for the online MHA program.

IMAGE: Paul Hazi

Narvaez sought a graduate program to broaden her education outside of dentistry as she views the business aspect of her practice as an essential component for success.

“I enjoy practicing all aspects of dentistry and wanted to pursue something other than a dental specialization. My choice clarified when I worked for the largest dental corporation in California,” Narvaez said. “It is business managers behind the clinics that call the shots in this corporation. Business management views the bigger picture while the dentists work with little knowledge of operations behind the scenes. However, the business element of the matrix that supports any clinical operation is overlooked by most clinicians, even those who own their own practice.”

Once Narvaez realized she wanted to understand the business aspect of clinic operations, the MHA program became the obvious choice.

“I researched several universities. Penn State was the oldest school with good tradition.  Perhaps the most influential aspect of my decision was program Director Chris Calkins’ charisma and the academic standing of the school,” Narvaez said.

Entering the program, Narvaez was surprised by how accommodating faculty and support staff members were to the students. She also appreciated and enjoyed the two-week on-campus experience at University Park.

“The campus visit was planned perfectly for the students,” Narvaez said. “Each day was filled with new knowledge and class activities and State College in summer is gorgeous.  Nature was in full splendor during the session.”

Narvaez admits that aside from seeking a master’s degree to enhance her business affairs there was another reason she enrolled in the MHA program.

“I am from a family that values education and I was the only one among my siblings without a post-graduate education. Because of this, one reason for continuing my studies was a matter of healthy sibling rivalry,” Narvaez said. “Time passes quickly. One could look back and find nothing of relevance to their future that had been accomplished in previous years. With the eMHA program one can look back and find that hard work has led to a better academic and professional position than two years earlier. Only when we push beyond our comfort zones do we take leaps in life.”

Kimberly Poderis, new mother

For MHA students, life does not stop for them while they earn their degree. Kimberly Poderis gave birth to her first child six months before graduation, but this dramatic life change did not interfere with her educational plans.

“This program gave me the flexibility to manage life and education,” Poderis said. “It did not take me away from my son and I will be able to get an education, have a career and be a mommy.”

Kimberly Poderis

Kimberly Poderis attends a class at University Park as part of a two-week session in the online MHA program.

IMAGE: Paul Hazi

When Poderis began the MHA program she was a newlywed, she and her husband had just purchased their first home, and she also took on her first management position. Then their baby was born.

“Over the last year, I have had our first child and with this course was able to balance work, school and motherhood,” Poderis said.

Poderis has worked in health care for 10 years, starting as a receptionist in a practice before eventually moving up to a supervisor role. She is currently exploring other opportunities in her organization.

Poderis selected the MHA program because an online opportunity was a more practical way for her to learn.

“Living about 30 minutes from Philadelphia, the closest graduate classes were 30 to 45 minutes away. Rush hour traffic after a long day at work can take a toll on a person. The online program through Penn State gave me the flexibility to focus on the weekends,” Poderis said. “I also liked that I was treated like an adult learner rather than a number in a classroom.”

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Last Updated January 07, 2015