Return to UBalt proves right path for grad student
What's My Why?
“At first, I wanted to get the graduate degree because I felt like I had a lot of the skills and the knowledge based on my experience from working, and I just wanted something to put a stamp on it. But things have shifted for me, and my interest has really shifted. Now I want to move more into hospital administration. … I feel like this degree will help me get there.”
Small details can stand out in major life moments.
That might be why, more than three years later, Ashley Cunningham can still recall how she looked and felt the day she reapplied to The University of Baltimore.
“I came to the school in person. I had on a beautiful orange top, beautiful necklace. My hair was pulled back, and I reapplied,” Cunningham said. “When I came into the office, they cheered for me. That said a lot to me. That felt really good, the acceptance. There was no judgment about me being gone for three years. I didn't get a whole lot of questions. It was, ‘You want to come back to school to finish your graduate degree? Let ’ s go.’”
Cunningham came to UBalt for its Health Administration graduate program. It was her supervisor at the Baltimore City Health Department that first convinced her to apply in 2016.
Getting in felt great, but then her personal life changed. She fell in love, had a chance to build a family and could pursue a career as a nurse. While she did well in her first class, continuing the graduate program no longer made sense, so she left.
It turned out that path wasn’t for her, and she looked back at UBalt and the opportunity that graduate degree she once considered could still provide her.
“My life had not gone the way I thought it was going to when I left, but I wanted to do this for me,” Cunningham said. “I still had a desire, and I wanted to at least get that done and do that right.”
Finding her place
It was March 2020 when Cunningham came back to UBalt. The interruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic that would soon follow wasn’t even enough to stop her this time.
“Even though I stepped away, when I came back, I was doing well and I kept doing well,” she said. “It made me see this is what I ’ m supposed to be doing.”
More assurance was coming.
As a city employee, Cunningham was eligible to apply for the Baltimore City Scholars Program, which would cut her tuition in half. In the classroom, she found professors impressed with how much she already knew and encouraging her in her assignments and discussions.
“I like that the professors are so involved. I like that the professors pay attention, get tuned in to a lot of us,” she said. “They make an investment, especially when they really see something in you.”
What turned out to be one of the best aspects of the program for Cunningham was the Saturday class option. UBalt’s Health Administration program offers classes on Saturdays as well as online. As a full-time worker, that easily fit in Cunningham’s schedule.
“That is another reason why I chose UBalt to begin with. I was like, oh, I can do that. I can dedicate 10 Saturdays a semester, so 20 Saturdays a year, I can do that.”
Cunningham had initially wanted a master’s degree as a sort of stamp of approval for all the skills she gained from working in public health. Over time, however, she saw it as an opportunity to change directions in the medical field.
A push toward public health
From a young age, Cunningham had always loved science. She loved asking questions and seeking out solutions, one hypothesis at a time. That eventually dovetailed into an interest in health. She was close with a family member who lived a long time with HIV but eventually progressed to AIDS and passed away.
“That ’ s where I think public health became important to me. I had done some things as a young woman, I enjoyed myself, sometimes I wasn ’ t careful, and I was in situations that weren't favorable to me. And so I had a mission to try to make sure that other young people understood about intimate partner violence and being in safe relationships.”
By the time she returned to UBalt in 2020, she had spent 10 years working in public health and was ready for a change.
“I think I
ve done my uncle proud. I
ve done myself proud. It
s OK for me to move on,” she said.
Cunningham will complete her program in December 2023. She’s already looking at doctoral programs with an eventual goal of working in top-level hospital administration.
She also hopes to build the family she’s always wanted while she continues to work.