Bringing valuable experiences from residency, MHA grads launch careers in health care leadership

July 28, 2018

MHA 2018 graduates, from left: Giovanni Sanchez, Serena Welch and Kevin Widjaja

By Matthew Kredell

Health Policy and Management Department Chair Jason Doctor presents Serena Welch with a 2018 MHA Outstanding Student Award.

Some people know what they want to do from an early age. It turned out that Serena Welch didn’t have the specific career in mind, but she knew exactly where she would do it.

When she was in the third grade, her mother, Robbin, had a life-threatening aneurysm and accommodations made through Kaiser Permanente allowed her to get the surgery that saved her life. Robbin made a full recovery, and Serena pledged that she would work for Kaiser Permanente when she grew up.

“Seeing her go through that experience made me feel connected to the health care field,” Welch said. “But, for me, it was Kaiser Permanente before health care.”

After graduating from the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Master of Health Administration program in May, Welch beat out hundreds of candidates for one of only six two-year fellowships at Kaiser Permanente.

Growing up, Welch thought she wanted to be a doctor. But in college, she ended up majoring in business at the University of Pacific, during which time she took part in an internship in information technology at Kaiser Permanente, and soon realized that the business side of health care is where she could make her mark.

One of the distinctive features of the USC Price MHA curriculum is the residency component, which typically consists of 1,000 hours of work under a senior manager at a health care facility, enabling students to put classroom theory into practice.

Welch, of course, served her residency at Kaiser Permanente, and the experience helped her land the fellowship, which will allow her to explore several areas of administration. The opportunity is a perfect fit for Welch, whose broad interests span management, strategy, diversity and social determinants of health initiatives.

“There are so many different avenues you can go with health care, and I want to make sure I’m doing something I’m really passionate about — creating impact and adding value,” Welch said. “This fellowship will expose me to different opportunities within Kaiser Permanente, and really is preparing you for leadership and executive positions within the organization. The MHA program was the step to get to the fellowship. I’m where I always wanted to be.”

Kevin Widjaja

A career dedicated to helping others

Similarly, fellow 2018 MHA grad Kevin Widjaja also landed the job he had hoped for, following completion of the master’s program.

Widjaja also planned to be a physician, an expectation he maintained throughout his undergraduate years as a physiological science major at UCLA. He posted a competitive MCAT score and was ready to apply to medical school when his supervisor and mentor, a UCLA physician-scientist, asked him why he wanted to be a doctor.

Widjaja gave the answer that he had prepared for years, centralizing his purpose of becoming a physician as an opportunity to help people in need. But when his mentor challenged his answer, questioning why he thought he could only help people by becoming a physician; that response got him thinking — there are actually many other professions in healthcare which would also allow him to help others.

Having served as the Care Extenders department coordinator in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, Widjaja quickly realized that his passion and skills for management was the right avenue for him to serve these patients and families. During his time in that role, he was able to successfully build the volunteering program in the NICU to a point where it was rated a top three volunteering department among more than 20 departments in the entire Care Extenders program.

When it came time to select which master’s program he wanted to join, the 1,000-hour residency opportunity is what ultimately drew him to USC Price’s MHA program.

“When I saw that USC had a 1,000-hour residency requirement, I knew that was a good opportunity because you’re never going to learn everything in the classroom,” Widjaja said. “It’s more important to learn in the field, building those relationships and connections, while directly working with leaders in the industry.”

In his two years in the MHA program, Widjaja also worked as a staff research associate for medical lab at UCLA, served on the USC Student Health Council, completed his residency at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, took part in a case competition and still managed to get co-authorship credit on four published papers in the area of gerontology.

Widjaja’s residency actually helped set him up for a full-time job at CHLA. As a resident, he was tasked by his mentor, the chief administrative officer, to develop a compensation plan for high-level physician recruitments with the academic affairs administrator. The administrator was impressed with his work, and she hired him upon the completion of his residency. He is now working as the faculty recruitment project manager in Pediatrics Administration and the Office of Academic Affairs.

“This is the power of making connections during your residency because they were actually looking to fill a more senior position. However, I had gotten to show my work ethic and what I was capable of, that it got me chosen over other applicants with more experience in recruitment,” Widjaja said. “Now I’m in charge of the entire recruitment and onboarding process for new faculty members coming to CHLA, in affiliation with Keck School of Medicine of USC.”

In addition, both Widjaja and Welch represented USC Price in separate case competitions. Welch traveled to San Antonio for the Everett V. Fox Student Case Competition from the National Association of Health Services Executives, tackling the issue of improving health outcomes for the community of Oakland. Widjaja captained a student team from USC to a second-place finish in the ACHE Western Region College Bowl, providing a sustainable model and strategy for creative a collaborative of medical centers in New York’s Hudson Valley.

“Both Kevin and Serena were role models with their leadership in class assignments and at case competitions,” said USC Price Professor Phil Dalton, who coached both case competition teams. “They led the charge in preparing for the case competitions and could always be counted on to get involved and participate in class.”

Veteran leadership

Giovanni Sanchez

For Giovanni Sanchez, the road to becoming a health care administrator included a few stops overseas.

Sanchez joined the U.S. Air Force out of Long Beach City College in 2000. He completed his military training in Hawaii and was about to go to Japan for an exercise when 9/11 took place, and instead was deployed to Qatar. Sanchez went on to have a distinguished military career as an intelligence analyst and then a drone operator supporting ground troops.

After 15 years of service, he wanted to begin the transition into civilian life to focus on his family, with his wife, son and two daughters.

“If I continued down the career path I had in the military, the types of jobs I’d be able to get post-retirement were typically out in the desert somewhere in secret areas,” Sanchez said. “When looking for the best schools, they’re not out in those areas. That’s why I was interested in a career change.”

Two years as a Medical Services Corps intern at the Los Angeles Air Force Base helped Sanchez define a new career path, and he decide to apply to the USC Price MHA program. He was able to get the costs of the program covered through the Yellow Ribbon Program, Post-9/11 GI Bill and the California Air National Guard education assistance, to which he credits Christine Wilson, director of student services at USC Price, for helping facilitate.

Soon after receiving acceptance into the program, he got a call from a Price ambassador, a current MHA student who congratulated him and offered to answer any questions he had. The experience cemented his decision to attend the USC Price School.

“Being able to speak to somebody who had already gone through the first year of the MHA program was very settling to me, to have answers to these questions from a student’s perspective,” Sanchez said. Once he started in the program, he volunteered to be a Price ambassador for others.

He juggled 12-hour shifts with the Air Force with classes during the first year of the program, and then cut back to part-time hours in his second year to complete his residency at Keck Medicine of USC. That experience led to his current job as a project manager at the access center for Keck Medicine in Alhambra.

“He handled the responsibility of a very intense position with the military at the same time as completing the master’s program,” Dalton said. “Yet he always kept a positive attitude, never making any of those difficulties evident to anybody.”

While currently working for Keck Medicine, he is continuing with the Air Force one weekend a month as a drill status guardsman to keep up to date on current happenings and flight status to be prepared to deploy in case of an emergency.

“I couldn’t be happier with this position,” Sanchez said. “One of the big reasons I made this shift was for my family, and right now everything is great as far as they’re concerned. It’s a best-case scenario for where I hoped the MHA program would take me, and I’m excited for what’s to come.”