An elective course pointed Aly Becker toward a different career. While completing classes to earn a bachelor's degree from South Dakota State in 2013, Becker took an epidemiology course. Instead of using her coursework from majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry to attend to dental school as she had planned, that elective class got her thinking about a career in public health.

"Something just clicked," said Becker, who started pursuing a Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) degree in January 2015. "I always thought I wanted to be a dentist but after I took that class, I was drawn to public health.

"I never got the epidemiology class out of my head and when the M.P.H. program got started, they just meshed together so perfectly."

Ally Becker USD
Aly Becker

In June 2014, the South Dakota Board of Regents approved the online degree, which is a partnership of the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University.

Despite never taking an online class before entering the program, Becker likes the format.

"It helps that there are some other students in the program in the Sioux Falls area and we've gotten together," she said."I've known some from previous undergrad classes. It's been nice to talk to them about the classes on a personal level that you don't get with the online classes.

"It's also nice just being an hour away if I have a question about something. I can run to Brookings to talk to Mary Beth (Fishback, SDSU's M.P.H. program coordinator) or she comes to Sioux Falls or, if needed, I can easily go to USD, too," she continued.

Becker notes the online format does require students to be self-motivated and have strong time-management skills.

"I've always been pretty good with time management but having an online class means it's not structured for when you have labs or lectures," Becker said. "However, it's not so bad. It's different, but it's manageable."

Following graduation, Becker would like to stay in Sioux Falls, an area she says has numerous opportunities in the public health area.

"I feel like public health is a very specific calling - it's not all ribbons and rainbows," she said. "You work with things that are tough to talk about, but it's really rewarding and I see that with my job at LifeScape (which provides health care and education for children ages 0 to 21 with disabilities and chronic health conditions). There's just a sense of pride from working in the field that is not necessarily pretty but definitely needed, especially when prevention is such a big thing. I definitely encourage the M.P.H. program to others but it's going to be hard work. It's looking at the bigger picture.

"The part that attracted me to dentistry was that I could see people on a regular basis and try to make a difference," Becker continued. "I realized public health is really all about that, trying to make a difference, whether it's in your community with some individuals or at a national level making public policy. Regardless, you're working hard toward a greater good and that's what I wanted to do as a dentist. I realized I didn't have to become a dentist to do that. I could work on other aspects of health care that interest me, such as housing or schools instead of a particular field."

Greg Heiberger, who worked with Becker in his role as the undergraduate program manager and lecturer as part of SDSU's pre-professional program, thought Becker's interest toward serving others also drew her toward a role in public health.

"She was a student who has given back through her service as a peer mentor and with her volunteer work," he said. "As an undergrad, Aly focused her skills on ways she could serve or support others and was still searching for the right career fit upon graduation. That's maybe why I think she didn't go right into dental school. While most students don't know what one does with an M.P.H., by comparison, they've been to a dentist every six months so they follow the path that's familiar. I have a feeling that Aly will end up using the skills and knowledge she gains in the M.P.H. in an interdisciplinary leadership role that will have an impact many wouldn't have known about as undergraduates.

As part of the M.P.H. program, Becker has gained insights from other students and the various classes.

"One thing I like about the classes is that it's not purely M.P.H. students. I think I'm the only M.P.H. in one of the classes I'm taking. It's nice to see and learn what they're thinking and their response to a problem," said Becker, noting she has taken classes with students pursuing doctorate of nursing practice or Master of Business Administration degrees.

"I really like how SDSU and USD put aside differences to put this program together," she continued. "They took the best part of each university to make this program. It really is a collaborative effort."