Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Radha Velamuri is a junior studying biomedical sciences at the University of Iowa. As of this semester, she’s also a first-year Master of Public Health (MPH) student in epidemiology, thanks to the University of Iowa’s Undergraduate-to-Graduate (U2G) program.

Her decision to join the U2G program, an “accelerated master’s program,” was a logical one. First, there was the pandemic, so public health was already part of a global conversation when Radha was, as she puts it, “at home and trying to figure out my life plan.” Then, a health issue resulted in frequent doctors’ visits, and she realized, “there was a bridge between research and healthcare that I really didn’t know about, and that was public health.”

Right to left: Radha Velamuri studies with fellow University of Iowa students Alex Murra and Eliza Steere (who is also enrolled in U2G) at the College of Public Health.
Right to left: Radha Velamuri studies with fellow University of Iowa students Alex Murra and Eliza Steere (who is also enrolled in U2G) at the College of Public Health.

As she debated graduate school and other potential career paths, Radha came across the university’s Undergraduate-to-Graduate webpage, and the MPH program in particular grabbed her attention.

“I’m a biomedical sciences student and I’d learned so much about public health through the news. I was like, ‘this sounds really cool.’ Since I work in a lab where I study vulnerability to stress, I was trying to relate that to the world around me, and I thought this was a very public health thing to do.” The overlap between the two academic areas seemed substantial enough that a graduate public health degree could enrich her existing knowledge and training. The more Radha looked into it, the more it felt like a good fit.

As Graduate College Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Heidi Arbisi-Kelm notes, the U2G program is a cost- and time-effective way to earn a graduate degree, as participating students save money on tuition and fees by earning two degrees more quickly than they would otherwise. This benefit rang true for Radha, who originally intended to complete her undergraduate degree in three years before going to medical school.

“Something I’m always cognizant of is how much time I’m putting into things because I want to get a job sooner rather than later and then get my life started,” she says. “So I knew that instead of graduating in three years and powering forward, I wanted to take a year and do something else.” The U2G program was ideal “because it gives me that extra year that I wanted while I’m figuring out what I want for myself but also it also gives me valuable experience that I can take into any field that I go into.”

As a U2G student, Radha is in good company. Almost two decades ago, the University of Iowa was one of the first academic institutions to introduce the program in their College of Engineering. Today, approximately 250 students are currently enrolled across 28 programs, which range from a Master of Arts degree in German to a PhD in Biochemistry.

As Assistant Dean Arbisi-Kelm explains, not only are U2G programs cost effective, but “they are an incredible opportunity to expose students to new faculty, new ideas, and a higher level of learning than they might otherwise obtain just by getting an undergraduate degree.” Students face a challenge “taking classes at a different level” than undergraduate instruction and navigating the dynamics of being both an undergraduate and graduate student, but the payoff is worth it.

Radha has found another benefit of the program: by moving directly into graduate work, she didn’t need to navigate a return to school or learn how “be a student again.” As she says, “I’m really fortunate that I worked on my work ethic as an undergraduate, and I got to carry that with me. I didn’t have any time where I was forgetting how to be a student, which I know some of the other graduate students were worried about.” Even still, she’s adapting to the program’s unique features, particularly the differences between undergraduate and graduate classes. “The coursework is different,” Radha notes. “I’m so used to ‘memorize this amino acid’ or ‘write down these proteins involved in this process.’ This is more ‘how would a community face this crisis.’ It’s a bigger picture, a different mindset that I’m not used to.”

Radha has also taken advantage of opportunities to practice effective communication and to take charge of her education, two behaviors she says are crucial for success for U2G students. “I don’t have the same connections as everyone in the college, especially since I’m coming from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, so I have to take that initiative and make those connections,” she explains. Even in her first semester of graduate school, Radha says, “I’m talking to my professors, looking to see what I would want for my capstone, and doing research on my own.” She advises future U2G students that “you need to have a little bit more initiative to get the same fulfillment that other [graduate student] classmates are getting, but it’s definitely doable.”

Looking forward, Radha is still exploring various paths, but she remains grateful for how the U2G program has already enriched her studies. Assistant Dean Arbisi-Kelm agrees that the U2G program “has proven to be a useful opportunity for students. It’s proven to be another way in which they can enhance their preparation for success post-college.” In Radha’s case, she’s found that “public health gives me a global perspective” that will serve her wherever she goes next.