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From Berkeley Public Health Online MPH to leading in ‘a time of great change’

At the heart of the Berkeley Public Health Online MPH program lies a deep-rooted commitment to advancing social justice. By integrating principles of equity, inclusivity, and community engagement into every facet of its curriculum and approach, it trains students to do more than protect and improve the health of people and their communities. It catalyzes meaningful change in areas and locations that need it most. This focus guarantees that students not only evolve into confident professionals but also emerge as passionate advocates ready to address the root causes of health disparities.

Ruth Thomas-Squance is a prime example of this mindset. Her journey from research scientist to leader at the intersection of healthcare, public health, and community development is a testament to the power of a well-rounded education. It all began during her time as an undergraduate in London, England, when exposure to the diverse landscape of urban living sparked her curiosity and passion for addressing societal disparities.

After completing a PhD in Biochemistry, Thomas-Squance ventured across the Atlantic to explore new opportunities in the United States. Little did she know that what began as a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship at the UCSF Cancer Center would evolve into a lifelong commitment to serving communities and promoting equity.

A push in the right direction

After two big life events, losing a parent and the birth of her first child, Thomas-Squance took a sabbatical that revealed new and interesting paths. The first led her to partner with a UCSF mentor, Dr. Loma Flowers, to start Equilibrium Dynamics, a Bay Area nonprofit providing emotional intelligence skills training to low-income and minority populations.

When Thomas-Squance met the late Dr. Tony Yancey at UCLA School of Public Health while working on a project for the nonprofit, it marked the “second big pause and redirect” of her career.

“Despite having spent so many years in biomedical research and the molecular side of cancer, being introduced to health disparity data, bold and unsubtle differences in health outcomes that reflected the impacts of racism in our systems literally came as a shock to me.” As a Black woman, Ruth says “It’s pretty impactful to see your identity showing up with data of worse health outcomes. My fascination with public health was born!”

When Thomas-Squance said she wanted to address those disparities and reduce avoidable human suffering, Dr. Yancey advised her to pursue an online Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at UC Berkeley. Thomas-Squance, now a mother of two, drawn to Berkeley’s online MPH program due to its innovative blend of academic rigor and flexibility signed up. The online format, along with immersive on-campus experiences and a diverse cohort of students from various sectors of the health ecosystem, provided her with a platform to deepen her understanding of public health principles while forging lifelong connections.

New experiences, new skills

Reflecting on her time at UC Berkeley, Thomas-Squance highlights the impact of courses such as Evan van Dommelen-Gonzalez’s “Health and Social Behaviors,” which equipped her with invaluable insights and skills for navigating the complex landscape of public health and equity work. Meanwhile, her engagement in Strategy in Health Care Organizations, taught by Joseph Houska, honed her negotiation skills.

“I found myself thinking back to these lessons in this last year while serving as vice chair of the board for the US Green Building Council and chairing the strategic planning committee,” she reminisces. “It is so rewarding to see organizations of global influence committing to keeping human health and social equity as focal points in their work. I was privileged enough to be able to work with both these UC Berkeley teachers and, subsequently, as a graduate instructor, so I got to enjoy the course content from the ‘other side’.”

Working alongside experts helped lay the groundwork for Thomas-Squance’s current role as co-executive director at the Build Healthy Places Network—as did an unforgettable course in communications.

Where multi-faceted, impactful leaders are made

Leading the Build Healthy Places Network, Thomas-Squance navigates her complex responsibilities with ease. Drawing upon the interdisciplinary nature of her education, she focuses on transforming the way these sectors work together to create community-centred investments that can advance racial equity and improve the social determinants of health.

The UC Berkeley Online MPH program’s emphasis on blending perspectives from various sectors prepared her to bridge organizational divides and foster collaboration among regional and national stakeholders. The graduate also underscores the invaluable role of emotional intelligence training in her work.

“I think it plays an underappreciated role in the success of multi-sector coalitions,” she shares. “It underpins the success of working across work cultures, as well as cultural backgrounds. So many times, the root cause of what can be attributed to obstructive behaviour lies in the neglect of an undetected or unarticulated emotional intelligence issue. I often refer back to the curriculum professionally and just as often personally, to survive parenting teenage boys.”

Encouraging aspiring world-changers to join the fight

With a steadfast commitment to advancing health equity and racial justice, Thomas-Squance embodies the ethos of Berkeley’s mission and has dedicated her career to inspiring positive change in communities nationwide. To her, there’s never been a better time for advocates to turn their passions into expertise, too.

With a steadfast commitment to advancing health equity and racial justice, Thomas-Squance embodies the ethos of Berkeley’s mission and has dedicated her career to inspiring positive change in communities nationwide. To her, there’s never been a better time for advocates to turn their passions into expertise, too.

To Thomas-Squance, UC Berkeley offers the best training to those looking to gain a spot at the forefront of what’s to come. “It plays such an important role in equipping professionals working in public health with the language, contexts and frameworks to embed values that can advance equity in the field,” she says. “The whole community at Berkeley is a vibrant arena to challenge yourself, your assumptions and your ideas. Their emphasis on bringing in diverse voices, sectors, and professions is a blueprint for how we need to do the work everywhere.”

A version of this story first appeared on the Study International website. Reprinted with permission.