Online MPH Program Allowed Aliya Patel to Continue Her Career, Grow Her Skillset, and Tell Her Story

Aliya Patel wanted to continue her education on her terms – ones that allowed her to keep her job and offer the rigor, affordability, and flexibility she was looking for

Sean Corp, Communications Lead

Aliya Patel has spent her life giving back through helping others, raising up communities, and building dialogues. Her passion and values were forged at an early age, serving as a caregiver for an ailing grandparent who battled Parkinson’s and dementia. While she enjoyed her work, she wanted the formal studies and training to better understand the theory and business skills that could lead to an even greater impact. She also wanted to have the education that would allow her to explore new career opportunities in public health and social justice. It also needed to be on her terms. She sought flexibility, affordability, a supportive environment, and intellectual rigor. 

While working in the San Francisco Bay area, where she was born and raised, she found an opportunity 2,300 miles away that wouldn’t require her to stop working or move away – the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and its online Master of Public Health program. 

As she wraps up year one of her two-year program, Patel says she knows she made the right choice. 

“I’m so lucky to be able to do this program online and on my terms,” Patel says. “Personally, an online environment better matches my learning style. My focus is better, I feel more comfortable, and I can easily reach and interact with classmates and professors. It is also flexible and allows me to work around my job schedule or when traveling.”

Patel was hesitant to pursue an online program because, even as the online learning environment appealed to her, she feared online options would be “watered-down” versions of in-person programs. 

three women posing for a photo behind a table
Aliya Patel (middle) and coworkers at a tabling event

‘It’s the people who make the difference’

But the more she researched U-M’s Master of Public Health, the more she realized it checked all her boxes. One of the top public health schools in the country. Check. Affordability. Check. Practical experience. Check. A feeling of support and community building in an online environment. Double Check.

“It’s the people who make the difference in this program. Michigan's values and mission draw others who are people-oriented and community-health-oriented,” Patel says. “I’ve cultivated relationships with professors, and they are very available to me as an online student.”

Importantly, Patel says, she is learning important skills that open up new career opportunities, including statistics, health policy, program administration, and budgeting.  

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work for and with some great organizations, but I have been constantly second-guessing myself. I have the heart, I have the ‘want to.’ Now, I need the theory behind my work,” Patel says. “After my degree, I will be able to write more effectively, contextualize community problems better, and advocate for policy. This will allow me to explore careers in government, hospitals, higher education, or become a consultant.”  

crowd of people at an outdoor event

Telling Her Story 

Her community health work has largely focused on connecting with people and using her experience as a young caregiver to help them feel more comfortable sharing their struggles and understanding that they are not alone. 

“I think everyone in public health has their big thing they want to tackle, and for me, it’s aging,” Patel says. “You never know when you’re going to be a caregiver, and I want to let people know that there is support out there and it is OK to ask for help.” 

Immediately after college, she spent two years working for a hospice and palliative care facility. As part of her role, she worked on a grant-funded project to research barriers to access to end-of-life care in tribal communities throughout California. This experience, Patel says, convinced her to return to school and pursue a degree in public health.

“I spent most of my weekends going to pow-wows, community health fairs, and visiting farms. I would get to talk to people and connect with them, and telling my story allowed them to tell their story. I realized how much I appreciated getting people to share their issues in life and with healthcare systems.”

Meeting Her Goals on Her Terms

Patel says with year one and her core classes behind her, she is excited to continue on the health behavior and health equity track, which will allow her to keep building up her portfolio and learn new skills. While balancing school and work can be challenging, she is excited to finish the program and land a career that combines her passions for science, community, and social justice. 

Her passion and U-M experience have motivated people in Patel’s life to explore potential online degree opportunities.

“My friends come to me and say, ‘You’re doing school while you’re working. You’re meeting your goals and doing it without a massive amount of debt, and you get to do it on your terms,’ she says. “My research is on the power of narrative, and I’ve gotten so much out of this program, I’m always happy to tell people how much I appreciate what this program has taught me and allowed me to accomplish.”