Melissa J. Perry, the new dean of George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services, recently sat down to discuss her personal and academic background, her vision for the college, and her approach to lifelong learning.
Perry served as professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health. She also recently completed an assignment in Albania as a Fellow in the Fulbright International Education Program for Global Scholars working to build public health capacity in that country.
CHHS is in the process of becoming a college of public health. Why is this transition important to Mason, the region, and the world?
Having a College of Public Health in the commonwealth will benefit those who live in the state and the region in many tangible ways. We will continue to engage with communities to improve health equity and access; foster workforce readiness and expand the pipeline of health care workers; and generate groundbreaking interdisciplinary research. Equity and inclusion will be at the center of all we do.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Mason is the place to launch the first College of Public Health in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
How has the pandemic underscored the impact that a College of Public Health could have?
The timing of launching the College of Public Health is essential. Infectious disease experts predicted decades before that we would face a pandemic. But in the United States, we were caught off guard because over the past two decades the jobs in public health have been reduced by at least 200,000. So investments in public health had been deteriorating. This pandemic has now made epidemiology, emerging infections and public health household terms that are fully recognized and that the importance of which are understood.
The pandemic also brought to the forefront long-standing disparities in access to health care in underserved populations who were severely impacted by COVID-19. While public health practitioners and care providers have recognized and sought to address health equity for decades, the pandemic increased awareness within the public.
The college has extensive outreach into the greater community. What role does and should the college play in the region?
During COVID, the university’s ability to respond in a health crisis, and the college’s ability to respond to community needs as it related to testing and vaccinations, has just been remarkable. And that is just one example of the significant example of the role the college can and will play within the region.
Imagine in five to ten years being able to reflect on the growth in leaders in public health having been trained here—leaders in health care, nursing, social work, nutrition, epidemiology, community health, and global health. Imagine being able to say, yes, the arrival of the College of Public Health was the conduit through which a whole generation of new public health leaders were equipped to provide care and advise on policy, and make decisions about how to keep the population as healthy as possible, and how to make it accessible and equitable.
Has the pandemic increased student interest in pursuing careers in public health?
In the last two years, applications to programs and schools of public health across the country have increased by 16%. So that’s an inordinate number of students nationally who have decided based on the upheaval and the profound disruption of the pandemic to go into public health. Public health and health care careers are the fastest-growing occupations in the country, with a projection of an increase in more than 2 million jobs in the next decade.
In terms of locally and within the Commonwealth of Virginia, there is a nursing crisis, and there is a health care provider crisis. That is why the college is integrally involved in several workforce initiatives to prepare the next generation of leaders across many disciplines, including health informatics, nursing, public health, and social work. We’ll be able to rise to even more of that demand, caring for disenfranchised and marginalized communities, as well as addressing preventive care and the mental and behavioral health problems that most of the country has experienced.
You’ve said that the college has an important role to play in advancing health as a human right. How so?
George Mason University is about inclusivity. The university welcomes at least a third of students who are low income, at least 40% who are first-generation college students. That is very unique. And that’s, I believe, a reflection of innovation and forward thinking. What better a way to achieve health as a human right than to ensure anyone who wants an education in public health, anybody who is interested in being part of the solution, to have access to a top-notch education?
You grew up in rural Vermont, six miles from the Canadian border, and attended the University of Vermont on a Pell Grant. Could you have envisioned this career arc, with stops at Johns Hopkins and Harvard and now becoming a dean?
My teenager friends and I would sit around in our tiny town and we would say: Can you imagine ever driving in Burlington? And I would say, no way, I’m not going to drive in Burlington! That’s going to be too scary and too complicated. So it was a really transformative experience to step foot on the University of Vermont campus to study psychology and soon be turned on to the idea of public health and mental health and the prevention of mental disorders. My experiences help me appreciate the variety of perspectives that our students bring to their education.
As your career has advanced you’ve sought training in management and leadership and now you’re completing your MBA at Mason. Why is this important to you at this stage of your career as an accomplished scientist and public health leader?
What I’ve learned is that oftentimes researchers and academics get hired into positions of leadership not based on their leadership skills or even their attitude but solely for their aptitude. If you want to be a good leader you should be willing to continually learn and adapt. Everything I’ve learned throughout my career and more recently through my MBA program has a direct impact on my daily approach to leadership. If one has a spirit of inquiry, a thirst for new knowledge and curiosity about ways of approaching new problems, then lifelong learning becomes the catalyst for both happiness and success.