First-of-Its-Kind Joint MPH Degree Tackles Rural Health Challenges

November 22, 2021

Program’s Place-Based Approach Seeks to Transform Health in Western N.C.

Asheville, N.C.—The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, UNC Asheville and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) have partnered to launch a jointly conferred MPH degree with a concentration in place-based health offered exclusively in Asheville on MAHEC’s campus. This place-based program draws on the teaching expertise and local knowledge of UNC Asheville faculty and the foundational core curriculum of top-ranked UNC Gillings School, currently named the No. 1 public school of public health in U.S. News & World Report.

In November, the UNC System Board of Governors approved the Asheville-based program as a joint MPH degree, which means graduates will now receive their diploma from both UNC Asheville and the Gillings School.

“For the past three years, the Gillings School has offered a distance learning version of its MPH degree in Asheville as part of the Public Health Leadership Program,” shared Laura Linnan, ScD, professor and senior associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs at the Gillings School. “Moving forward, we are thrilled to create a joint MPH degree program that leverages Gillings School’s long history of excellence in public health training with UNC Asheville and MAHEC’s strong partnerships with western N.C. communities and regional health systems and their expertise in liberal arts instruction, interprofessional health care, and collaborative community-based research.”

“The Asheville MPH team is celebrating this news. We have been working together for many years to bring Dr. Travis Johnson’s vision of a collaboratively delivered, innovative place-based MPH program to Western North Carolina,” shared Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, MPH program director and executive director of the North Carolina Center of Health and Wellness for UNC Asheville. “We can now proudly honor his legacy by meeting the demand for public health training in our region with heart, humility and social justice in mind. Building on the strengths of our three campuses and our sustained connections with community organizations, we will use this momentum to foster thriving, healthy and connected communities.”

The joint MPH program features small cohorts of up to 24 students, case- and community-based activities, and instruction by interdisciplinary faculty and community practitioners who bring real-world experience to the classroom. The program’s place-based focus positions local communities as catalysts for transforming systems to promote well-being for all.

“Local residents hold the history, knowledge and ways of interacting with place. As such, a place’s inhabitants and institutions work in relationship, using participatory processes, to create and lead efforts to sustainably improve the social drivers of health and ultimately actualize health equity,” noted Sarah Thach, MPH, faculty and Asheville MPH assistant program director. “Through our place-based public health program, graduates increase their confidence in developing, supporting and sustaining collaborations that contribute to more equitable systems and better lives.”

Onsite instruction at MAHEC’s academic health center provides MPH students with numerous opportunities to learn alongside health professionals from a variety of disciplines including physicians, dentists, pharmacists, health researchers, and community health advocates.

“It is essential for public health practitioners to build strong relationships not just with members of their own teams, but with community members themselves. Collaborating around common goals, in the setting of place, ensures an equitable approach to building healthy communities,” shared Bryan Hodge, DO, chair of the Department of Community and Public Health at UNC Health Sciences at MAHEC. “This MPH program attracts professionals who are already invested in their communities and equips them with the knowledge and leadership skills that will help them transform their community’s health.”

The joint MPH degree is a full-time course of study requiring 25-35 hours a week of dedicated time. Courses include on-site classes one day per week as well as asynchronous online lectures. Most students complete the degree in four semesters. Graduates are prepared to step into leadership roles in health and educational systems, local and state agencies, and community-based organizations.

Applications are open now with a priority deadline for funding of Dec. 1, 2021. The Asheville MPH application deadline is April 1, 2022. For more information, visit

About the UNC Gillings School and UNC Asheville Joint MPH Program in Asheville

The mission of the joint MPH Program in Asheville is to foster thriving, healthy and connected communities in western N.C. by equipping the next generation of public health advocates through place-based learning, community connection, justice-oriented relationships and community-driven solutions that bridge the gap between research and practice.