University of South Florida


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COPH doctoral graduates with faculty at the USF Health Commencement. (Photo by CMOON Productions)

The COPH graduates 558 public health heroes

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Dean Donna Petersen congratulating an online MPH student during the COPH’s Graduate Celebration. (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

The USF College of Public Health (COPH) welcomed master’s and doctoral students to a graduation ceremony presented at the college to family, friends, students, faculty and staff on Dec. 8.

Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the COPH, began the ceremony sharing the morning’s top news headlines. The dean noted that the public’s health is an ever-present concern (and news topic) for the country and the world.

“Why does that matter?,” asked Petersen. “Because everything that happens in our environment affects our health.”

Every year, the COPH Excellence in Teaching awardee offers words of encouragement to the graduating class. This year’s speaker was Patrick Rodriguez, instructor I, who was able to virtually recognize the graduates.

“As you enter this next phase of your lives, we encourage you to remember the importance of being a lifelong learner. The field of public health is constantly evolving, and it is essential to stay-up-to-date with the latest research, technologies and best practices,” he said. “We also encourage you to embrace diversity and inclusivity in your work, recognizing that health equity cannot be achieved without addressing the root causes of social and economic disparities.”

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Dr. Janice Zgibor speaking to the graduates during the COPH Graduate Ceremony. (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

Dr. Janice Zgibor, professor and associate dean for academic affairs, rounded out the ceremony, presenting the Class of 2023 with their degrees and class gifts.

“I’m so proud of the accomplishments that you have made. It’s taken some time, but you did it. I had the privilege of reading all your projects and you have made an impact on public health today as we speak,” Zgibor said.

While the graduate student ceremony was underway, the undergraduate studies team celebrated BSHS and BSPH graduates with a stop-in photo booth session before the USF Health ceremony at the USF Yuengling Center.

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This semester, 459 undergraduates, 85 master’s degree and 14 doctoral students graduated and entered the public health profession.

Here are some of the stories from the Class of 2023:

Sarah Starr, BSHS

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Jessica and Sarah Starr (left to right) at USF’s Graduation Commencement. (Photo courtesy of USF Newsroom)

Amid a generational difference and opposite fields of study, Sarah and Jessica Starr may not be able to share study notes, but they do share a special bond. The mother and daughter often met at the USF Tampa campus for lunch over the years as they each chipped away at their degrees. Mom, Sarah, pursued health sciences, while her daughter, Jessica, followed in her father’s footsteps to become an engineer. 

“It was back in January when we realized we would be graduating at the same time. It was a complete coincidence,” Jessica said. 

The Starrs are originally from England and moved to Florida in 2002 after their husband and father, Paul Starr, took a new job. Sarah dedicated her time to raising the family in a new country, setting aside her dreams of a college education. But her hopes were never far behind.

“It was a long process to go back to school. Marriage, kids, work, lots of reasons. But then I realized, the only way to get out of this cyclic thought about my dreams is to just do it,” Sarah said.

After completing her first semester at a community college in 2018, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer. The health struggles may have slowed her down, but they did not stop her. Instead, they led the way to her career path. 

“I did take a semester off. But the staff at the cancer center and my family helped me tremendously with support and getting my health back again. Then I continued with new vigor,” Sarah said. 

Biology was always her best subject and working as a cardiac monitor technician meant health care was front of mind. She was recently promoted to telemetry supervisor at AdventHealth in Tampa and plans to pursue further opportunities in cancer research.

Meanwhile, her daughter, Jessica, credits her mother’s strength and determination for inspiring her journey in higher education. 

“Her journey didn’t end but rather it got her right back on track. Nothing can stop her, and nothing can stop me either,” Jessica said. 

Both Starrs often met at the Marshall Student Center to chat about classes, appreciating university life together on campus. While the projects differed, they supported each other with tenacity through the demands of their programs. 

“Venting to my mom on campus was cool because she truly understood. And I’ve enjoyed the classes and getting to know my peers. Knowing we could work together is exciting,” she said.

Mother and daughter continue to make memories as they plan Jessica’s wedding in February.

Arabel Severe, MPH, PTA and Amelia (Amy) Phillips, DrPH, MPH, CPH

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Arabel Severe, MPH, PTA. (Photo courtesy of Severe)

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Amelia (Amy) Phillips, DrPH, MPH, CPH (Photo courtesy of Phillips)

When deciding what college to attend for her MPH, Arabel Severe knew she had to carry on her family’s tradition and join the COPH. 

“My uncle went to USF where he earned multiple degrees, including his MSPH and PhD in public health from the COPH and his MD from the Morsani College of Medicine. He was very involved in the public health program and even taught some classes,” Severe said. “He always spoke highly of the program and always had something positive to say about it!” 

Focusing on global health practice and disaster management, Severe said that she was most proud of the work she did as a graduate assistant, working on different projects while juggling her classes and personal life.

“Graduate school was an adventure! It was stressful but such a great learning journey. I had the opportunity to work as a graduate research assistant and gained a lot of experience,” she said. “I met the most awesome colleagues, made friends that I plan to keep up with and had the opportunity to build my network of amazing professionals!”

Severe said that her end goal is to combine both her physical therapy degree from Seminole State College of Florida and her public health degree to become a rehab director. Until then, she will be continuing her work as a research assistant with the COPH.

“My education here has provided a solid foundation, allowing me to navigate the complexities of public health research with confidence and contribute meaningfully to the advancement of knowledge in the field,” she said.

Now a third-time alumna of the COPH, Amelia (Amy) Phillips is graduating with her DrPH in advanced practice leadership in public health. Her doctoral project focused on physician mental health and included the development of an evidence-informed resilience curriculum to prepare medical students for the transition from medical school to residency training.

During her time in the DrPH program, Phillips said she was most proud of completing her applied practice experience (APE). This particular APE is designed to ensure that students have advanced-level practical experience outside of the formal curriculum and was the highlight of her DrPH program experience.

“I had the privilege of serving on the Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) national working group on medical student well-being where I had the opportunity to contribute to efforts that support and enhance medical student well-being across the country,” she said. “While my initial agreed-upon APE project included a two-semester time frame, I enjoyed it so much that I ended up serving on the working group for nearly three years. I am very proud of the group’s accomplishments, many of which can be seen on the AAMC’s website.”

Currently serving as the director of well-being for the USF College of Nursing, Phillips is planning to continue teaching classes for undergraduate COPH students. 

“I am forever grateful for the three COPH degree programs that not only equipped me with a wealth of knowledge, but also fostered personal and professional growth, helping to shape my future with invaluable skills and insights in the field of public health,” Phillips said. “I am proud to be a triple COPH Bull!”

Marlene Joannie Bewa, MD, PhD, MPH, CPH

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Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa with COPH faculty Drs. Claudia Parvanta and Russell Kirby at the USF Health Commencement. (Photo courtesy of Joannie Bewa)

Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa discovered her passion for health when she was 9 years old, after she nearly died from health complications. From then on it was clear to her that she wanted to become a physician to save lives. But, while nurturing her desire to become a physician, her best friend passed away due to complications of an unsafe abortion. An experience that further firmed Bewa’s desire to become a doctor and advance women’s sexual and reproductive health.

Bewa became introduced to public health while in medical school at the Universite d’Abomey Calavi in Benin after founding the Young Beninese Leaders Association (YBLA), a non-profit organization seeking to address sexual and reproductive health, especially among adolescents and youth. YBLA reached more than 10,000 youths on reproductive health and HIV, and 3,000 girls on leadership with the support of the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Young Africa Women Leaders Grant Program.

This organization lead her to into global public health work as a senior technical consultant for various agencies and government entities such as the United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency, Oxfam, Robert Koch Institute in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Congo, Benin and Madagascar. She was later appointed to various technical advisory groups with the World Health Organization and Merck for mothers.

After earning her MD, Bewa was awarded a U.S. State department Fullbright scholarship in 2015 to USF to complete a master’s degree in public health. Once completed, she continued her education at the COPH entering the PhD program with a concentration in maternal and child health.

During her time at the COPH she was actively involved in research and community engagement.

“One of my favorite research moments was working with the U.S. Health and Human Services and Office of Minority Health. They awarded a $40 million grant to the Morehouse School of Medicine with USF COPH Florida Prevention Research Center as a key strategic partner to establish the National COVID-19 Resiliency Network,” she said. “I was able apply social marketing to deliver culturally and linguistically appropriate information on COVID 19 vaccine.”

She also earned numerous awards both inside USF and out in the community. 

“It was humbling to receive the prestigious USF Outstanding Young Alumni Award and Golden Bull Award during my master’s degree program, as well as being featured as a Tampa Bay woman to watch in Tampa Magazine’s “Charging Forward” article. I was alongside revered women leaders such as USF President Rhea Law,” Bewa said. “It was also a unique experience meeting Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and advocating for investment for women’s health globally.”

Bewa is currently the founder and CEO of her consulting firm, Bework. The firm focuses on research, program management and evaluation in public health and international development, serving organizations and governments in United States and abroad.

She also founded DOTOH, a telehealth company providing primary care and sexual reproductive health services in Africa. Plans to expand DOTOH beyond Africa are currently being explored. DOTOH in Benin language (in Fon) means medical doctor, health, caretaker and/or listener.

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About Department News

Welcome to the USF COPH news page. Our marketing and communications team is entrusted with storytelling. Through written stories, photography, video and social media we highlight alumni, faculty, staff and students who are committed to passionately solving problems and creating conditions that allow every person the universal right to health and well-being. These are our stories.