After big career switch, new MHA student named Graduate Student of the Year

By: Rachel Barton

Karrah Teruya poses seated at a table

Karrah TeruyaPhoto provided

When Karrah Teruya started college, she wanted to learn more about the healthcare field, ultimately choosing an undergraduate major in public health. After graduation, Teruya’s interests shifted away from healthcare. Her long-held zeal for food and wine motivated her to move into the restaurant industry, where she worked for several years as a sommelier and wine consultant. Teruya’s career in wine was the ultimate passion project; a job she genuinely enjoyed with good future prospects. Going back to school for another degree was the furthest thing from her mind, let alone being honored as Graduate Student of the Year from Purdue University’s Department of Public Health.

Then, Teruya was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive form of cancer. Suddenly, she was thrust back into the healthcare field, but this time as a patient. As Teruya underwent cancer treatments, she developed a new perspective on the critical nature of well-delivered care.

“Prior to getting diagnosed, I didn’t even have a primary care physician — I was that far removed from everything,” Teruya said. “But the care that I received initially was so good. All the hospital staff, doctors and nurses helped make this scary experience feel a lot less scary. I kept thinking everyone should have access to this caliber of care.”

Teruya’s experience as a cancer patient inspired her to think more deeply about how healthcare systems work and how they might be improved. She understood healthcare professionals have a huge impact on the outcomes of their patients and that a patient’s experience often depends on what’s happening behind the scenes at the administrative level. This revelation persuaded her to start researching master’s degree programs in healthcare administration.

Finding the Perfect MHA Program

There were a couple requirements Teruya had when researching master’s programs. First, the program had to be fully online and flexible so she could continue her cancer treatments. Second, the program had to be open to someone with little to no healthcare job experience — Teruya knew plenty about being a patient, but she had never worked in healthcare administration and didn’t know very much about the industry. As Teruya searched for programs that met her needs, Purdue University’s online Master of Health Administration (MHA) jumped to the top of her list.

“I ended up interviewing Cody Mullen (clinical associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences and MHA faculty director) to learn more about it, and the more I found out, the more I knew it was perfect for what I wanted,” Teruya said. “Purdue didn’t require me to have prior experience, but it was still such an in-depth program. I knew that I would learn a ton.”

After getting accepted into Purdue’s program, Teruya began her studies in fall 2021. She was struck by how much she learned within the first year of the program, thanks to the expansive expertise of the program’s faculty.

“All of the program’s professors have a ton of industry experience,” Teruya said. “So when they’re teaching us about how the industry works, they’re using their own experiences. If they’ve made any mistakes in the past or there’s something they wish they knew when they were starting out, they can teach that to us so we can avoid those mistakes.”

Teruya also learned a lot from the way her courses were structured. All the program’s courses are project-based, so students learn by taking on realistic assignments that model typical healthcare administration situations. Students consider these scenarios based on their areas of interest. Since many of the students in Teruya’s cohort have specialties different from her own, she’s been able to learn about many different aspects of healthcare by working with them.

“Everyone in the program has a different passion,” Teruya said. “There’s one person who’s interested in working with veterans, and then there’s another person who’s interested in nursing home administration, and I’m really interested in patients’ experiences — when we all work together, we learn a lot about how diverse the industry is.”

At Purdue, Teruya has also found the flexibility she needs as someone undergoing aggressive cancer treatments. Though Teruya is not always sure of what her treatment schedule will be and when she will have energy to complete projects and assignments, the program’s faculty have continually worked with her so she can be successful in school and successful at battling her cancer diagnosis.

“There’s so much going on in my life in terms of hospital stays and doctor visits,” Teruya said. “There are whole weeks where I might need to be in the hospital all week, and I don’t necessarily have energy to do all of my projects. My professors have worked with me to ensure that I can complete things when I’m feeling well and take a break when I’m not feeling well.”

From New Student to Student of the Year

Teruya’s continued dedication to the program, despite facing a significant medical challenge, has inspired the faculty who work with her. After just one year in Purdue’s Master of Health Administration program, Teruya was named Graduate Student of the Year by the Department of Public Health. The faculty who recommended Teruya for the award cited her work ethic and determination in the face of adversity.

“Karrah is an outstanding student because she really dove into my course and took it as an opportunity to expand her ability to make an impact in the real world,” said Macy Levan, limited-term lecturer in the Department of Public Health. “She picked a topic she genuinely cared about and diligently worked to understand it. This resulted in her preparing both a great academic product and something that she could take into an actual healthcare organization and hand to a member of the executive team.”

Mullen, the MHA program director, noted that Teruya also brought an important perspective from the patient’s point of view to her coursework.

“Karrah started the MHA program at Purdue with lived experience in healthcare but limited professional experience,” Mullen said. “Her faculty could quickly tell that she wanted to make a change in healthcare based on her experiences. Her combination of being in various healthcare settings with the content taught in her courses has allowed for a unique and diverse viewpoint on the cases presented to her.”

After completing one year of the program and being named Graduate Student of the Year, Teruya looks forward to what she will learn during the next year of her program. She hopes to apply what she’s learned so she can make important changes in the healthcare field.

“Many people come into the healthcare field, and they’ve never been long-term patients, so they don’t always know the right questions to ask,” Teruya said. “Having that perspective as a cancer patient has given me an idea of how we can improve these systems and create a better experience for frontline staff and for patients.”

Though Teruya’s graduation is still a while away, she’s already excited to start a career in healthcare administration. She said Purdue’s MHA program gives students the knowledge and skills they need to make a career change with confidence.

“This program is about more than getting a master’s degree; it’s about feeling actually prepared to work in the industry,” Teruya said. “A year ago, I knew next to nothing, but now things are starting to take shape — I know I can do this.”

To learn more about Purdue’s top-ranked online Master of Health Administration degree, please visit the MHA program website.