IMPH Alumna Addressing Health Disparities in Florida
Reprinted with the permission of the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. Click here to read the original article. Allison Rapp worked at IMPH as a Research Assistant focusing on obesity prevention, coordinated chronic disease prevention strategic planning and with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps.
If someone had told Allison Rapp that she would earn a master’s degree in public health and find a fulfilling job with Special Olympics Florida, she wouldn’t have believed it. “I was never someone that loved school, I did my undergrad kicking and screaming because all I wanted to do was dance,” the Boston area native says of earning a Bachelor of Science in Sports and Fitness from the University of Central Florida. “On my graduation day my mom told me I would go back and get a master’s degree eventually. I told her she was crazy.”
Rapp’s dancing brought her to South Carolina to perform with the Columbia City Ballet and later work as a personal trainer. When she realized she wanted to make a broader impact, she knew she needed to pursue a master’s degree.
“When looking through the different options, I felt like the Master of Public Health in Physical Activity and Public Health (MPH-PAPH) program was the best path for building on my undergraduate education and experience as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor to get me to where I wanted to be helping people be healthy through physical activity and healthy eating,” she says. “I loved my MPH program.”
Rapp also saw practical benefits to returning to school. “I think one of the best things about my MPH program is that before I started, I was applying for all these jobs that I really needed a master’s for and never got interviews,” Rapp says. “Through my program I realized that I really didn’t know all I thought I did and really did need the master’s degree in order to do the jobs I wanted.”
Established in 2000, the MPH-PAPH program (Department of Exercise Science) is the first academic program in the nation designed to prepare professionals to increase physical activity and improve health at the population level. With core courses from across the Arnold School, the program allows students to build interdisciplinary expertise in physical activity and health promotion.
“Go broad,” says Rapp of taking advantage of the diverse curriculum. “There are so many facets of public health, so many different public health issues and ways to attack them. Also, network and do it while you are a student. Think about where you might want to work, volunteer or do your practicum there and get the experience. You will be glad you did when you start to look for a job.”
Rapp’s networking led her to find mentors who remain influential in her career. Lee Pearson, Associate Dean for Operations and Accreditation for the Arnold School, and Megan Weis, Associate Director of Outreach & Program Development for the S.C. Institute of Medicine & Public Health, taught Rapp’s program planning course in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB). Pearson and Weis, who are also Arnold School graduates (both earned Doctor of Public Health in HPEB degrees), helped Rapp land her first job after graduation and continue to offer her their support.
“It was the most intense and rewarding class I’ve ever taken,” Rapp remembers. “I still talk to them regularly, and now, four years later, they are still providing me with great advice.”
Since her 2012 graduation, Rapp has gained enough valuable experience that she is now in the position to serve as a mentor herself. “I loved the idea of working with a population with significant health disparities and for an organization that was all about sports,” she says of joining Special Olympics Florida as the Healthy Community Site Director in Tampa. “One of the first things they wanted me to do when I came on board was to put together a walking program. I have since designed a 40-week walking program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities which I have partnered with Nova Southeastern University on and received a $15,000 research grant to pilot the program.”
According to Rapp, her Arnold School program helped prepare her to lead these initiatives. Now Rapp, who once adamantly resisted the idea of earning a master’s degree, is thinking about pursuing a doctorate.