MISSOULA – Monica Difort grew up in Kalispell and graduated from Glacier High School. She attended college in upstate New York as a pre-med major, but she came to realize “there is so much more to health care than just interactions between patients and health care providers.”
Inspired by classes that examine the intersection of science, technology and society, she found herself hunting for public health graduate programs on the East Coast. Imagine her surprise when she Googled that one of the best programs originated back in her home state at the University of Montana.
It was a program she could take online during evenings and weekends without disrupting her current job in Utica, New York. When she reached out to UM, the program’s director, Tony Ward, called her personally.
“He explained everything to me, and it just felt like a good fit,” Difort said. “Everyone was super nice, so I decided to go for it.”
She jumped into a program that recently was named the No. 16 best online Master of Public Health Program in the U.S. by EduMed.org. A public health degree prepares graduates to work in a variety of settings, including public health departments, hospitals and clinics, nonprofits, worksite wellness programs, human resource offices and community-based health agencies.
EduMed.org studied more than 7,700 accredited schools to compile its list. UM was one of only 6% of regionally accredited colleges and universities earned a ranked position. The online public health programs making the list were honored for quality, affordability and commitment to student success.
“Recent events with the pandemic really highlighted the importance of public health,” said Ward, a professor and chair of UM’s School of Public and Community Health Sciences. “We are seeing a significant increase in the number of public health and health care job opportunities. I know Monica is entering a growing career field.”
Earning a degree online is a new experience for Difort. She usually starts her day working full time from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at her local county health department. Then in the evenings, she works on her readings and logs into online discussions with other students. She also invests time completing her online degree on weekends.
“With online learning, you need to plan things out and make sure you are logging in every day,” Difort said. “You need to be disciplined, but the great thing is you can do it on your own time. It can work, even if you are working or have a family.”
She was surprised by the different backgrounds of her fellow students.
“People are from all over the place,” Difort said. “There are people from Alaska, Colorado, Virginia and Alabama … some of them are pretty rural. And there are so many different backgrounds. Some people already have MDs, and they are taking the class. It can be a little intimidating, but it’s really cool to learn from so many other people who have so much more experience, but also different experience.
“I can contribute among these people I really look up to, and we all learn from one another. So I think that has been the coolest part.”
Difort needs to complete one more online class to finish her degree, as well as two capstone projects.
“I’m really kicking it down right now, hoping to graduate in December,” she said. “I’ve just been working so much – working and going to school. It’s been tough, but I know it will be rewarding in the end.”
Contact: Tony Ward, professor and chair, UM School of Public and Community Health Sciences, 406-243-4092, firstname.lastname@example.org; Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, email@example.com.