Ronni Roberts

Two years ago, Ronni Roberts started the online Master of Public Health at the University of New England, with a campus in Biddeford, with plans to give back to where she grew up — rural Maine. She hopes to create harm reduction strategies and address food insecurity — a goal the faculty members who know her are certain she will achieve.

“Ronni exemplifies what I want to see in an adult learner in an online program,” said Carol Ewan Whyte, Ph.D., director of UNE Online’s Graduate Programs in Public Health and associate teaching professor. “She engaged with her peers and faculty and seized opportunities; opportunities that allowed her to stretch her mind and perspectives and grow into a highly qualified public health professional who will make a difference in her community and the world.”

Roberts, who graduated on Friday, May 17, came one step closer to her goal this month when she was named a Presidential Management Fellowship winner. The fellowship, a two-year premier leadership development program, bearing the U.S. Presidential Seal, allows fellows to directly serve the American people and gain first-hand experience — over 160 hours — in federal policymaking and program implementation.

Roberts grew up in Wells and plans to use her project management and public health education skills to address the needs of underrepresented communities through impactful initiatives and policy work in the local, state, and federal government.

“I’m passionate about making sure that people feel cared for,” she said, adding that there’s a lot of ways people can address public health issues, and for her its making people facing food insecurity feel seen. “I always want people to feel cared for and I always want people to know that I see them and they are loved by this community.”

One of the highlights of Roberts’ time at UNE was her applied practice experience, she said, when she traveled to Ghana for two weeks to research heart disease prevention. Using survey data, she created culturally relevant public health materials to help with heart disease prevention in the local communities.


“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Roberts said. “It changed my experience with public health because I got to see it from a global standpoint, and I think that is an experience every public health provider should have.”

Closer to home, Roberts participated in service-learning projects, such as creating harm reduction kits for individuals reentering communities after incarceration. These hands-on experiences allowed her to apply her public health knowledge while making a tangible impact.

“I feel good walking away from the program knowing that I created something worthwhile and did justice for a community that is often overlooked and underrepresented,” Roberts said.

She credits working with faculty like Whyte with pushing her and supporting her during her time at UNE.

“Dr. Whyte’s passion for public health was truly inspiring,” Roberts said. “She challenged me to think critically and approach issues from diverse perspectives — the entire faculty went above and beyond to ensure we had an enriching educational experience.”

Despite the common perception of online programs as being isolating, Roberts said she built a strong sense of community and made lifelong friends through engaging service-learning opportunities, collaborative group work, and supportive peer relationships in UNE’s online M.P.H. program.


Many online students work their schedule around their individual jobs. Roberts, who works full time as an academic affairs and curriculum coordinator for UNE’s College of Dental Medicine, said that she chose UNE Online because it was flexible and self-paced, allowing her time to complete coursework on her schedule while still receiving support from instructors and engaging with peers.

“The online program is set up in a way that allows you to really build your schedule around what works for you,” Roberts explained. “If you’re a working professional, a parent, or caretaking for a relative, it really works out well to manage your own workload.”

This flexibility proved invaluable when Roberts’ stepmother was battling kidney cancer during her first semester.

“I reached out to my professor and the program, and I never had to worry. I got a message back right away: ‘Whatever you need, you tell us what you need. We’re here for you,’” Roberts shared. “I don’t know if I would’ve been able to navigate (my family health issues) the way I was able to navigate it online and feel supported at the same time.”

Prior to graduation, Roberts said, “I’m so thrilled to be celebrating this milestone achievement with my UNE family — the friends I’ve made, the professors who guided me, and the supportive staff who made this journey possible. Graduating with my M.P.H. is a dream come true, and I can’t wait to walk across that stage.”

Emme Demmendaal is a senior writer with the University of New England Office of Communications and Marketing.

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