Portrait of Melissa Santiago

Melissa Santiago


Program: MPH/MPA
Graduation Year: 2018
Employer: American Cancer Society
Job Title: Health Systems Manager, State and Primary Care Systems


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  • What motivated you to study public health?

    I was fascinated with the functionality and complexity of the human body, so naturally, I wanted to pursue medicine. As I gained more experience, my perspective of the healthcare industry shifted. I began to question why such an expensive, profligate and quixotic system existed. None of my undergraduate professors ever addressed barriers, social determinants of health or socioeconomic status, many of the challenges my parents and I faced growing up. I realized that if I became an extraordinary physician I would just be a part of the system, and I could only do so much as an individual. That is when I decided to pursue public health and tackle these issues through a different approach. My goal became to improve the healthcare industry by focusing on the preventive side and closing those gaps by creating bridges instead of walls.

  • Why did you choose the University of Miami for your public health degree?

    It was a difficult decision trying to decide if I should continue my education at UM or Emory. Ultimately, I chose UM because Miami is my home. My family and entire support system is here, I had an incredible position at UM at the time with flexibility and extraordinary colleagues. I was also accepted into the dual public health, public administration master’s program, which sweetened the deal. The faculty and staff also made themselves readily available to answer all my questions. In the end, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make an impact in my community, we have a lot of work to.

  • Describe your career path:

    When I finished undergrad, I wanted to take a year off and really focus on deciding with a clear head whether to pursue medicine or something else entirely. I still wanted to be intentional and ensure I learned something valuable in my time off. I asked myself, “What is something I’d be more interested in learning about?” My first thought was leadership and how I could be a better leader. Most of the physicians I had encountered were not very good leaders and if I did become one I wanted to be someone who knew how to lead and medical school, unfortunately, does not teach that. I started a position as a Program Assistant in the leadership and training umbrella of UM’s HR. The team led over 220 training executions for the university’s culture transformation project that aimed to create a culture of belonging and foster a value-based purpose driven organization for over 14,000 employees across all of UM’s campuses. I also contributed to the revamping of the global curriculum for the new employee orientation and the launch of the employee engagement survey. I enjoyed the fast-paced and diversity of collaborations from senior leadership to staff partners across all disciplines. It was during this time that I decided to pursue my public health masters. I also joined Junior League and the philanthropic work I did exposed me to the challenges women and children face in our community. When the project completed, I stayed on the team as a Program Coordinator and eventually Manager, while completing my capstone project with a federally qualified health center in the Quality Assurance and Process Improvement Department. Executing and implementing multiple process improvement projects with patients who had large care gaps, low literacy and in a low resourced institution was even more of a challenge than I expected, especially for the high-risk population. It was also the best opportunity and most rewarding experience to be able to provide strategic direction to improve operational efficiencies and clinical outcomes. A semester before completing my masters, I transitioned to an advisor and simultaneously managed a Health Mentoring Program with the College of Arts and Science at UM for students from underrepresented communities. Currently, I work with the American Cancer Society as a Health Systems Manager of State and Primary Care under the Cancer Control team. My territory covers all south west and south FL. In my role, like a consultant, I lead the cancer control, evidenced based interventions, and quality improvement initiatives for my clients. My portfolio consists of federally qualified health centers, rural clinics, large primary care networks, primary care organizations, and health plans.

  • How did you obtain your current position?

    When I completed my capstone project, the Chief Quality Officer and I kept in touch. He contacted me and informed me about my current position. I then reached out to the hiring manager expressing my interests and later applied. During my first interview, we both realized he had been a guest speaker in my Program Evaluation course. My professor for that class was also employed by the American Cancer Society at the time.

  • How did your degree prepare you for your current position?

    My science background made it easier to understand the more difficult courses. Having the theory and concepts of models and human health behavior is something I apply quite often, if not every day. There is no intervention we move forward with that is not evidenced based- something pushed immensely during my program. My MPA program also provided a unique perspective in management and project execution, focusing a great deal on your communication, collaboration and influencing. Both my MPH and MPA program had diverse group of students. My colleagues were from every continent and brought a wealth of knowledge from their experiences, backgrounds, and communities. I work with a range of backgrounds, cultures, and personalities and it’s something unique only Miami offers. I’m grateful both programs embraced and celebrated all cultures.

  • What is your favorite part of your job?

    I honestly can’t choose. I absolutely LOVE the meaningful and impactful work I get to do every day. I’m very blessed to be a part of an incredible, supportive and talented team. The culture of the American Cancer Society is by far the best out of all the institutions I have worked in. Our senior leaders are excellent and engaging role models and as an organization, we continue to excel in the work we do. In my position I get to travel, train, collaborate, impact, grow, advocate and learn a lot, I even have the opportunity to work from home or in an office. Perhaps my favorite part of the job is when I see the results and the amount of lives our organization saves through our preventive work. You can’t put a price on that.

  • What are your long-term career plans/goals?

    As we are all aware, the healthcare industry is undergoing a dynamic transformation. It is faced with an increased demand for services while grappling with unsustainable cost trajectories by consumers. There are always conversations about reform and how our current models of care just don’t provide patients with good experiences, transparency, and improved health with a lower per capita cost. Not to mention the disruption of technology and changing policies. My near future interests lie in improving access to care, reducing costs, and empowering consumers to track and manage their health by working in the digital health industry. Ultimately, I’d like to run for office or lobby and be in a position where I have the opportunity to impact our policies.

  • What advice do you have for someone interested in your career path?

    In no particular order:
    1. Don’t accept a no to be a no, turn it into a not right now-be persistent and proactive in everything you do, possess a spirit of excellence and you will excel.
    2. Embrace a growth mindset-these are the people that can be developed, someone with a fixed mindset is static, someone with a growth mindset embraces challenges instead of avoiding them, they persist in the face of setbacks instead of giving up easily, they learn from feedback and criticism instead of ignoring it and find aspiration in the success of others instead of feeling threated by their success, as a result people with growth mindset will have more achievements.
    3. Don’t learn to cope, learn to adapt. Half the time nothing will go according to plan, embrace change. Train yourself to be mindful of your emotional intelligence. By being mindful you’ll be strategic and be able to shift your behavior to accommodate those situations and challenges.
    4. Know your value proposition and worth, don’t ever settle for less. Or even worst, talk yourself into doing something because you think it will look great on your resume. By knowing yourself you are able create new value, exude confidence and have the courage to speak up.
    5. When a situation is in front of you, capitalize on that moment.
    6. Find a mentor, check your circle and always be in good company. This is the system that will help propel your career forward.