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‘Instead of retiring, I’m refiring,’ says public health advocate who earns Georgia Southern doctoral degree this week

This week, Lisa Ariellah Ward will earn a Doctor of Public Health from Georgia Southern University, a merited title for the grandmother of seven and mother of four.

Her return to academics after a 20-year hiatus has been rewarding, if not staggering.

“I quickly learned that academia was vastly different from the professional arena and I found myself having to learn what I felt was a completely new language in a completely different world,” said Ward. “The enormous changes in academia, technology and the entire learning environment posed significant challenges for me with each semester’s coursework. I had to start anew not just with the coursework but with everything.”

The degree in Public Health Leadership, Health Policy and Community Health was all consuming during the last four years of Ward’s life while she served part time as a consultant for the University of Florida, both onsite and remotely from her home in Kingsland, Georgia.

Lofty challenges are not unique to Ward, who holds a bachelor’s in biology and genetics from Cornell University and a Master of Arts in health promotion from the University of Alabama. She worked in public health and healthcare for more than two decades while raising a family of teenagers as a single mother and caring for an ailing mother.

Her foray into public health began in the late 90s as a tobacco cessation coordinator for the public health department in Marietta, Georgia. With a $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ward was tasked with setting up a tobacco cessation program for employees and creating a smoke-free campus. Many of the directors were smokers. Tobacco companies were aggressively anti-public health, and she faced a major uphill battle as she kicked off the indoor, clean-air initiatives and started two new smoke-free coalitions in Douglas County and Cobb County. Ward was “archenemy No. 1” in her first year on the job, she said.

From a family of smokers, Ward’s father died from tobacco-related complications and her mother had a debilitating stroke from smoking. Her work goals crossed personal lines.

“That’s why I cherished the challenge,” she said. “If it’s only one person who quits smoking, it is one of the greatest accomplishments I could ever share.”

Ward became more creative with her job, and started focus groups that included her directors, and began coaching them directly. In line with the Great American Smokeout event, her ‘cold turkey’ campaign awarded nonsmokers with “you guessed it — a cold turkey.”

“It was a lot of fun,” said Ward, smiling. “I love challenges. I mean, just tell me something can’t be done and I will find a way to find a solution.”

Many of the directors quit smoking and she appointed passionate advocates to move the needle further just before she began entrepreneurial efforts in corporate wellness where she served as a health coach for Fortune 500 groups. She also acted as a clinical consultant for the David Grant Medical Center, the Air Force’s largest medical center, located in California.

At another clinic in Jacksonville she helped build a new corporate wellness program for more than 5,000 employees, provided training for stress management, tobacco cessation and nutrition for the janitorial and custodial staff, physicians and chief executives. 

“I like being on the ground floor for new program development,” she said. “That’s really my passion. I love planning, implementing and developing programs and then seeing them all come to life.”

Her latest chapter at Georgia Southern was a dream decades in the making.

“After successfully raising children, all of whom are now accomplished professionals, I made the life-changing decision to return to school,” said Ward.

The last time she was in a university setting, classes were in person or available on CDs or DVDs.

Initially, she felt new technology contributed to the digital divide for underserved populations, but in time she turned the technology she once disdained into fodder for research. She based her dissertation on the effectiveness of telemedicine and diabetes management in an urban, medically underserved population area.

Her conclusion soundly backs telemedicine as an alternative healthcare service and its effectiveness in managing diabetes for underserved populations who were previously impacted by systemic barriers.

There were times Ward questioned her choice of trying to attain this degree, but when she dug deep, there wasn’t any confusion.

“The primary thing on my mind was the people that I hope to serve,” said Ward. “My passion is to help people to achieve a better quality of life. I’ve seen many who have had lifelong struggles win their battles over tobacco addiction and difficulties with weight and obesity, sleep and stress. I am praying that this degree will lead to greater opportunities to influence and serve the public on a national scale.”

Her classmates, children, friends and professors, including Gulzar Shah, Ph.D., department chair of Health Policy and Community Health at Georgia Southern’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, provided lifelines when she needed the most support, including during her dissertation committee review.

“After the defense, when my committee congratulated me as Dr. Ward in unison, it was really emotional,” she said. “There with tears from me and my chair Dr. Shah. This is certainly a dream realized  for me, and I’m overjoyed.”

While she’s looking in various directions, she’s interested in potentially working with national organizations that train leaders who work with underserved populations. 

The future is limitless.

“I do not want to waste anything that I’ve learned in my academic, professional and lived experiences,” she said. “Public health is a fascinating field that you can really delve into and make influential changes for the betterment of society.

“I feel like this is a new beginning and there’s more I want to do. I’ll never want to retire,” Ward said. “Instead of retiring, I’m refiring.”

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