Divya Venkataganesan: Creating Systems-Level Support for Older Adults

As a nursing assistant, Divya Venkataganesan saw firsthand the negative impact of falls on older adult hospital patients. She used her internship experience in the trauma department to help create a system that flags residents for early recognition and better treatment.

During this process, she developed an interest in evidence-based health promotion, disease prevention and interventions aimed at human behaviors and lifestyles at a population level — which inspired her to pursue her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree.

“With today’s aging population being more active and outnumbering children, the last third of our lives requires reimagining. Physical and social infrastructures need to better support healthy aging, and our community needs to work together to address new challenges.”

Venkataganesan wanted an MPH program that focused on implementing public health solutions and achieving health equity using systems thinking tools. She needed to learn how to navigate complex systems and analyze the variables that can transform a community.

“The MPH program at Gillings offered both technical and leadership competencies to develop collaborative and cross-sector interventions,” she explained.

Making the Most of Her MPH@UNC Experience

Venkataganesan chose the MPH Leadership concentration, which she says has made her more aware of what makes leaders effective.

The program, she said, “taught the importance of incorporating cross-sector collaborations to bring different partners together.”

As a student, Venkataganesan worked with a number of local and global organizations that emphasize community engagement and holistic public health approaches:

  1. Western North Carolina Falls Prevention Coalition (her Gillings practicum): analyzed demographic- and falls-related data among older N.C. residents to help guide the development of a 2021-2024 strategic plan
  2. Center for Development in Ahmedabad, India: co-designed educational and life skills training to empower adolescent girls from marginalized communities
  3. Cabarrus Health Alliance: assessed the readiness of the county’s behavior health agency to adopt a tobacco-free health policy and regional tobacco intervention strategies
  4. TABLE, a hunger relief nonprofit: piloted a nutrition education program designed to improve engagement, health and access to services in the community

These experiences, as well as what she learned in her courses, have enabled Venkataganesan to apply project management, strategic planning, quality improvement, data analysis and cultural understanding to her work.

“As public health ideas evolve, leaders in public health must also adapt. We must value, encourage, role-model and have the vision to drive evidence-based practices forward.”

Connecting with the Gillings Community

Venkataganesan appreciated working with classmates from different professional backgrounds on team projects throughout the program.

“We were always extremely supportive of each other and our work. We shared resources and opportunities and introduced each other to our professional networks. Many of us will be lifelong friends and supporters.”

She also found the Gillings faculty to be very attentive, carving out time to discuss her career development and educational endeavors.

Venkataganesan developed an especially close relationship with her faculty mentor — as well as the faculty and peers involved with the many student organizations she joined, which included the:

  • MPH Steering Committee
  • Bioethics Society of UNC’s Leadership Team
  • Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice’s Student Executive Committee
  • Gillings Interprofessional Education and Practice’s Student Interest Group
  • Public Health Leadership Student Association
  • Initiative for Minority Excellence APIDA Empowerment Group
  • Academic Enrichment Program
  • Gillings on the Ground and Interprofessional Distinguished Scholar Programs
  • Minority Student Caucus Mentorship Program

Through her courses, practicum and extracurricular activities, Venkataganesan greatly expanded her professional network, which has played a pivotal role in shaping the next phase of her career.

Creating a Career with Wide-Ranging Impact

“Just one month into my post-graduate experience, many opportunities and doors opened for me,” Venkataganesan said. The leadership experience she gained during the practicum with the Western North Carolina Falls Prevention Coalition led her to becoming the secretary of the organization.

Then, in July 2022, Venkataganesan was able to transition to working full time for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services with the Division of Aging and Adult Services, where she leads the State Plan on Aging.

Her position involves:

  • Designing and conducting projects/studies;
  • Assisting with program planning, data collection and analysis;
  • Selecting the analytic tools that determine the reliability of the results; and
  • Presenting data to the public, other departments, political offices and internal subject matter staff.

She also serves part time as the falls prevention project specialist for the Healthy Aging North Carolina initiative at the N.C. Center for Health and Wellness, where she manages activities related to coordinating, implementing and evaluating the Falls Prevention Coalition 2021-2025 Action Plan.

Venkataganesan believes that success as a public health leader means listening to diverse voices, engaging the community and convening a team to develop a unified vision.

“To me, effective leadership and connections are about not only logic, research, facts and figures — but also emotion and heart.”

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