University of Florida

How Exploring Opportunities Helped This Student Find Her Passion

MS in HEBOnline M.S. in Health Education and Behavior student Liz Leja didn’t always know she wanted to major or work in health education, but now that she’s here, she knows it’s where she’s meant to be.

Leja and teammate Gina De Sanctis are this year’s winners of the National Case Study Competition in Health Education™ (NCSCHE™). Undergraduate and graduate teams joining the competition are given three weeks to develop a plan to solve a real-life issue; this year the focus was breastfeeding disparities in a rural Louisiana county. Students must demonstrate mastery of the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) Core Competencies for a Health Education Specialist. The competition culminates in a presentation to a panel of judges.

In an interview, Leja shares details about the competition, how she discovered a passion for the field, and how the HEB program set her up for a winning career.

Tell us about the approach you developed and the work you completed as part of the National Case Study Competition in Health Education™

We decided to focus on education and access after reading background information and doing our own research on this area of Louisiana. We learned about the minimal resources they have, especially on the topic of breastfeeding.

My approach to health education is thinking about the social determinants of health. Not just our genetics and the biological component, which is very important, but our environment, accessibility, family, education level, and socioeconomic status.

For the competition, we looked at the population holistically to figure out how to approach this intervention. We found there were low rates of education in the area along with a lack of accessible transportation to get to the available resources. We wanted to make sure the people on the outskirts of the parish had the opportunity to engage.

We also took cost into account with our budget. The household income level for this population is very low.. We thought about what existing resources we could use so it would be low-cost and so we could meet the people where they were. This included partnering with the central health department and using the libraries as a free resource.

In terms of your knowledge of Certified Health Education Specialist competencies, how did the online Master of Science in Health Education and Behavior (HEB) program prepare you for success in the competition?

The most important thing I’ve learned from this master’s program is focusing on people, including learning what messages we need to send them and how they’re going to receive them. We need to understand the social aspects of their lives along with their health to figure out how to best meet their needs.

One of the classes I’m taking now focuses on theories, and we just covered behavioral economics. We as humans are generally not rational in the decisions that we make. We really need to be pushed and motivated, and we need accountability. Meeting people where they’re at is the most important thing we can do, especially in terms of trying to give them knowledge and skills to make behavior changes through the interventions we create.

The needs assessment was an important aspect of the competition: understanding the population we were working with before even thinking about how to increase breastfeeding rates.

How did the online program prepare you for virtual collaboration in the competition?

I like to talk – I’m definitely a people person. At the beginning, the online environment of the master’s program was an adjustment.

Some of my professors have been great in facilitating collaboration. Dr. Julia Varnes required us to do group projects in her class. Each week, we had to get together in groups on Zoom and record ourselves, and that fostered better engagement.

In terms of meeting with Gina for the competition: that was great because we only had to work around two people’s schedules. We had a short time frame to create this program and met two or three times a week, including weekends and late at night.

During the presentation, we were able to have notes with information we wanted to share, as well as take notes based on feedback from the judges. I’ve taken this feedback into account in projects I’ve since completed.

Tell me about your background and what drew you to the health education field. As an alumna of the B.S. in Health Education program, what led you to return to complete your master’s?

My experience at the University of Florida has been one of the most transformative of my life.

UF is my dream school. Freshman year, I was exploratory, with no idea what I wanted to major in or do after college. I switched from business to psychology to marine bio, then decided on nursing, but it was too late to be on track for that. The summer before my sophomore year, I fell upon health education. Dr. Holly Moses was the advisor, and she helped me become admitted to the major.

When I spoke with Holly, I felt so at home and accepted for the first time at the university. Even over email, she knew exactly what I was saying and wanted to do.

Health education just made so much sense to me – it wasn’t hard. Everything clicked – every class, every project. I have learned a lot.

When I was still in undergrad, Holly was developing the online master’s program. I thought completing the master’s would be helpful for my career, but when I started it, I had no idea what I was going to do afterward.

I also knew that a lot of the faculty that I worked with in undergrad were facilitating the master’s classes, which was exciting, especially with Holly being behind the program. She was a huge mentor to me within undergrad and Eta Sigma Gamma. I thought, “If anyone can understand what I’m going through, and how I can continue to fight for my career as a health educator, it’s her.”

I feel so at home in the master’s program. I love to learn and if I don’t have something to push me, I might become stagnant. The master’s has ignited a passion in terms of what I want to do with it.

What would you like others to know about the M.S. in HEB program?

The faculty are some of the most caring, empathetic, and passionate people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. They understand everything that’s going on within your personal life.

The master’s is very in-depth compared to the bachelor’s.

The bachelor’s is a great foundation. For anyone intrigued by this field and the opportunities that it has, the master’s completely blows it out of the water.

In the class I’m taking, we are learning so many health behavior theories in a short period of time. Even though this is a one-semester class, the expectation of the work and research is completely accelerated compared to that of the bachelor’s. We are learning how we tick and how we can all be more well. I feel genuinely challenged; I’m not doing busywork.

The inclusivity of the program and the cultural competency you learn is another great aspect. We talk about so many different populations, and we have to account for everyone. There’s no politics involved; we are talking about human beings.

That’s what I’m passionate about – helping people get to a head and body space where they are healthy and happy with themselves and what they’ve accomplished.

Thanks to the faculty at UF and HEB, and specifically Holly, I discovered my passion and my career path. It’s amazing how you can take a chance on one person and impact the next course of events for them.

It’s been a very transformative and impactful past six years of my life. I’m somewhere where I feel like I can make a huge difference, and that’s all because of the faculty and what I learned at UF.

Can you tell me about your experience working in health education, and, specifically, as a health coach at Prisma Health?

Prisma Health is a hospital system in Greenville, SC. I’m fortunate in the position I have now: being able to coach, counsel and talk to people about making lifestyle changes to help them manage their conditions. I work over the phone with patients, though I don’t like to call my patients my patients – I just call them people that I work with, because I think it’s important to identify a person as who they are, not what they are.

My team is amazing and has diverse backgrounds, with degrees in exercise science, education, and other areas. My supervisor and manager push us and reaffirm our belief in ourselves, since we are surrounded by NDs, PAs, nurse practitioners, and others that have more clinical experience. There is still some more work to do in terms of us being an integral part of a care team. But I have worked with some physicians that are grateful for my help and advise their patients to work with me.

As I’m growing in my career, advocating for our profession has become important to me. I tell patients of the hospital system, “No, I’m not a nurse, I’m not a doctor. But this is what I’m capable of doing. These are things we can talk about.” Doing the competition fueled that fire. It showed how effective we can be in this profession.

Going from my bachelor’s to master’s, I have also grown to advocate more for why I chose this field. At first I wanted to go into nursing, but I’m really finding my niche here with coaching, motivating, and educating. That’s what’s cool about our field too – it’s so diverse. With that diversity comes questioning because we can do a lot of things, and not everyone understands a baseline of what health education is. But as health educators, we could go anywhere – schools, hospital systems, nonprofits, and communities.

What are your professional plans for the future?

I’m interested in educating college students in this program or other health professions like medical school or PA school to get them to understand a more holistic, patient-centered approach to individuals. Don’t treat the symptoms, treat the person. Meet them where they’re at. Healthcare and insurance is so complex in terms of services, delivery, and cost. If we can tweak the model with regard to the people delivering the care, then hopefully systemic changes could follow suit.

I love working with people but I also believe I could do very well in a managerial or administrative position: oversee the people helping the people, and organize efforts and interventions. I really enjoyed what we did with the case study competition. I love to be in the field, but doing the research and looking at the needs is also important. You need people to do that, delegate, and let their employees spread their wings and do the work.

About the Online Master of Science in Health Education and Behavior at the University of Florida

The University of Florida’s online Master of Science in Health Education and Behavior (HEB) was developed by CHES® and MCHES® faculty to prepare students for careers in clinical and non-clinical settings. Developed around the areas of responsibility laid out by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, the curriculum builds the knowledge that professionals need to plan, implement and evaluate programs for health education and promotion. To ensure HEB students are positioned for success, the program requires that all students sit for the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) Exam.

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