Helping you reach that next step: Texas A&M’s Health Science Center in McAllen director Olga Gabriel talks about the school’s vision; education, research and outreach

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By Joe Louis Gomez / Photos By Ivan Xavier Ramirez

Students don’t have to postpone their lives to get ahead. For those looking to become tomorrow’s leaders in Public Health, McAllen has become a true center for those seeking fulfillment in serving rural and under- served populations through education, research, service, outreach and creative partnerships.

For Olga Gabriel, MPH, Director of Texas A&M’s Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health in McAllen, Public Health is part science, and part art. It’s the ability to prevent disease, and prolong life through the collective efforts of numerous public and private entities, communities and individuals.

“We are putting out students who are graduates in health policy and management. These are students who are going to be leaders, CEO’s, presidents of clinics and hospitals, top administrators,” said Gabriel, who is a 2000 graduate of the school. “They are learning the value of running to benefit not only the community, but financially benefit, because we are all in financial straits.”

Founded in 1998, the School of Rural Public Health is a nationally ranked, fully accredited public health research, service and training program.  The School has been ranked by U.S. News and World Reports as a Top 25 Graduate School in Public Health by providing future public health leaders with a learning environment focused especially on research, and comprised of stellar faculty.

Students are able to pursue Masters and Doctorate degrees at the campus. They include a Masters in Public Health (MPH) degree, a “research focused” Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) degree, and the nation’s premier Master in Health Administration (MHA) program for those seeking career opportunities in rural settings. Doctoral programs are offered in Health Services Research (PhD), Social and Behavioral Sciences (DrPH) and Epidemiology and Environmental Health (DrPH).

The school also offers a joint PhD in toxicology being developed with the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine, and is currently developing new PhD programs in the disciplines of Epidemiology and Occupational Health and Safety.

“I think the way we are growing, this is the perfect area and opportunity for medical students to come down and see the population that we deal with, which is usually low income, lack of health insurance or underinsured,” Gabriel said. “It’s a good opportunity to see in a rural setting as we are the school for public health but all under the (Texas A&M) Health Science Center. I think this is a great area.”

Over 150 students have graduated since the school began, Gabriel said. Professors emphasize community impact with research projects ranging from emergency preparedness to community health development. With faculty sitting in as advisors, students participate in a practicum during their stay. Students have conducted epidemiologic studies, assisted in programs/centers of faculty, and many others have served as interns in Texas and abroad.

“Everyone has great qualities. I think when you hire people that make you look good, you’ve done a good thing,” Gabriel said. Those are people who may know than you, and that’s great. They are the ones who are going to bring all the good fine points and different attitudes and attributes to the table. We have got such a great network of people here. Everyone, the loyalties are to the campus and the students and to growing what we have here. I think when you have that to begin with, it’s hard not to succeed.

A McAllen native, Gabriel has been director of the Texas A&M Health Science Center McAllen campus since 2010. She is a former director of the Children’s Defense Fund Texas-Rio Grande Valley and was the founding director for U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s district office in McAllen. She received an undergraduate degree in health education from The University of Texas-Pan American and a Master of Public Health degree from HSC-School of Rural Public Health in Community Public Health and Management.

“I think it’s important to know that we are here in your backyard,” Gabriel said. “You can continue to get higher education, and still retain that work. People are working professionals with full time jobs with families, but they want to continue that education. We make that possible because our classes are in the evening. Online classes are at their convenience. I think that’s important to know. You don’t have to stop working to get ahead. You can make this work for you. That’s what we try to do. We work very closely with students. It’s a whole collaboration. How do we make this program work for you?”