A degree of extra dedication: Staff graduate earns MPH while working at Cornell full-time
By Grace DePaull
With commencement approaching, thousands of students at Cornell are preparing to celebrate completing their degrees. But for some students, Cornell is more than where they study – it’s also where they work.
Denise LaLonde-Paul is a licensed veterinary technician at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and has worked at the university for over 16 years. This spring, she will graduate with a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, which she began in 2017 and earned with support from the Employee Degree Program – a program designed to provide benefits-eligible Cornell employees with full tuition toward both undergraduate and graduate degrees at the university.
After finishing her Master of Professional Studies in Animal Science at Cornell, LaLonde-Paul found herself at a crossroads when deciding the next steps in her graduate education. With the possibility of continuing her studies at the university, LaLonde-Paul was encouraged to explore graduate courses in public health.
“I was born with a tremendous love for all animals and a curiosity for science,” LaLonde-Paul said. “I was the child who wanted to take in every stray animal. So, it’s always been a dream to find a career where I can impact veterinary medicine by providing compassionate nursing care and being a patient advocate. Then as time went on, I was able to envision how I could take my experience with animals and my continued education to make a larger impact on animal health and the planet.”
One of her deciding factors for crossing into the public health sector was the absence of veterinary technicians within the field and the impact this profession can have in roles traditionally reserved for veterinarians. LaLonde-Paul jumped at the opportunity to help bridge this gap, crediting the Cornell MPH program with its ability to see the value of veterinary technicians in public health and helping advance her career.
As a full-time employee at the university, LaLonde-Paul is busy working as a clinical veterinary biobank specialist at the Cornell Veterinary Biobank. Her work consists of caring for patients in the small animal hospital nursing care units, participating in biospecimen collection and supporting various research projects focusing on canine genomics, orthopedics and oncology. LaLonde-Paul said the encouragement of her supervisors and colleagues helped her succeed.
Maintaining a work-life balance helped her manage the pressures of work, school and parenting.
“As an employee degree student, you embark on this journey knowing that you have a great responsibility to not only be a successful student but to prioritize the commitment you have made to serve the college in your job. It is a delicate balance, but I have had some phenomenal professors who told me to just take everything one day at a time,” she said.
While completing her MPH, LaLonde-Paul had the chance to share the experience with two other veterinary technicians at Cornell’s Veterinary College - Pooja Sen and Darby Warf - who have taken advantage of the same program.
“It’s wonderful that we have other licensed veterinary technicians here in the hospital graduating,” said LaLonde-Paul. “Being a veterinary technician, you’re so focused on the animals that sometimes you don't always take the time to appreciate how people around you are also growing. So, it's a big deal for me to recognize members of our profession being accepted to graduate school at Cornell, working through the program and now being able to go out into the world and practice public health. I am watching my profession grow in ways that I never dreamed were imaginable. It is incredible to see us take on this journey and become leaders in public health.”
Looking ahead, LaLonde-Paul is excited to start the next chapter of her life and focus on the career growth made possible by her graduate degree. But first, she says, “In the upcoming months, my immediate goals are to slow down and appreciate time with my children and family.”
Learn more about the Employee Degree Program and other Cornell employee educational benefits: https://hr.cornell.edu/understand-your-benefits/education/education-benefits-cornell.