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Yerevan, Armenia
Varduhi Petrosyan

Varduhi Petrosyan

Yerevan, Armenia

Occupation: Dean, Turpanjian School of Public Health, American University of Armenia

Current Residence: Armenia

Degrees: PhD ’06, Health Policy and Management, MS in Environmental Health at the University of Idaho

The Bloomberg School is home to over 2,000 students from more than 85 countries who meet here in Baltimore to pursue their public health education. Many of those students then return to practice public health in their home countries.

Their careers span consulting, research, academia, and more. Whether they’re influencing policy or training future practitioners, they’re all working to protect health and save lives—millions at a time.

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What’s the best part of your job?

It’s quite rewarding to work in the environment where I work. We have a small program—the MPH is a two-year program that has admissions every year, with around 20 students in each cohort—but a very active research center. In Armenia, opportunities for making positive change are much bigger because it’s a rapidly evolving country.

It’s also wonderful to see the change that my teaching and mentoring brings to students’ lives. 

What brought you to Hopkins?

I went to the American University of Armenia for my MPH. That school has an affiliation with Hopkins: The school and program’s 1995 opening was led by Professor Emeritus Haroutune Armenian the MPH program director at the Bloomberg School at the time. This is how I learned about Hopkins.

While in the MPH program, I received a fellowship to study in a health-focused environmental science program at the University of Idaho. I was hesitant to go, but I wanted to explore the world and opportunities outside of Armenia.

I dreamed of pursuing a PhD. When I applied [to the program in Idaho], one of my professors asked me, “Why are you going?” At that time, I thought a master’s degree from a US university would give me more independence, experience, and strength to overcome challenges and make me more competitive for a PhD at Hopkins.

My academic advisor at the University of Idaho helped me to find an internship in the Health, Policy and Management department at the Bloomberg School. During that internship, besides working with Bloomberg faculty, I had a chance to meet with those faculty members who taught at the American University of Armenia to discuss my PhD plans and get their advice. I applied [to the Bloomberg School] for my PhD and was admitted.

But without a scholarship, admission means nothing for a person like me coming from—at that time—a low-income country. For a couple of months I was on the waitlist for funding. I was awarded a departmental scholarship in 2000 and defended my dissertation in May 2005. My PhD was awarded in 2006.

How has a Hopkins degree helped you?

It was wonderful to study in the best school of public health worldwide and then take those lessons and experiences to the institution where I work now.

I [initially] worked on environmental health projects, but health systems was always my passion. After my first year of study, I shifted my focus, and Gerard Anderson became my academic adviser. Working with Jerry opened up wonderful opportunities. He is so well known, respected, and influential in health policymaking in the U.S.

We were working on international projects comparing health systems and quality of provided health care between different countries—mainly countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I did my dissertation on this topic.

That experience led to opportunities to work on papers with people like Princeton political economy and health policy expert Uwe Reinhardt. We worked on a paper about why U.S. health care is so different from other countries’, which became very popular. That was a very important experience for me.

Jerry and I also coauthored a follow-up paper as a tribute to Uwe. That was published in January 2019.

After graduation, I kept ties with my adviser and other colleagues. For example, I asked advice from Jerry when I was offered a position as adviser on health reforms to the prime minister of the Republic of Armenia. It was one of the happiest moments in my professional life. There was a specific health reform that I thought was problematic, and this was a chance to give back to my country and share my expertise. Jerry gave me wonderful advice: “Pick your battles and focus if you want to be effective.”  

I had the confidence to share my experience, to fight for my ideas, and to bring evidence-based policy into my country. It was an incredible feeling, and I owe this experience to the Bloomberg School. 

Do you have colleagues who had similar experiences studying at Hopkins? 

Yes, of course.

I still keep in touch with my classmates from Hopkins … and we collaborate professionally. For example, I’m the associate editor of the International Journal for Equity in Health which Barbara Starfield started. My former classmate Efrat Shadmi is chief co-editor with Leiyu Shi.  

I [also] invite my classmates to share their experiences with their [countries’] health systems. I teach Comparative Health Systems, and I invited Shadmi to present the case of Israel. I invited Krishna Rao. Before joining Hopkins as a faculty member, he worked at the Public Health Foundation of India. He gave guest lectures on the history of health care reform in India.

This network helps me professionally and academically. For them, this education was also life-changing, and they are making a difference in their communities. 

Let’s talk about your role as dean. What kinds of skills do you think are required of someone to do this work?

Perseverance is very important for this type of leadership position—the ability to fight for your ideas. You get that with experience, but to get the relevant experience, you need to prepare.

You prepare through an education that provides not only knowledge but also experiences [such as] interactions with people—and at Hopkins you interact with people from many different countries and backgrounds, and with different professors who also have very different approaches and strengths. That exposure was instrumental to building the skillset I needed to take this kind of position.

What’s your advice for prospective students?

I believe in education very firmly. Good education is the number one door opener for everyone, independent of their gender, race, ethnicity, or anything else.

I became a different person after exposure to a doctoral education [at Hopkins]. I became more confident, I believed in opportunities, and I saw that I could do much more than what I had done so far. It became much more realistic to pursue dreams that, previously, I would not have thought were possible. 

I also think it’s important to get the right experience. Beyond studying in the classroom, get busy with other things that your educational institution provides, like opportunities to work as a research assistant or TA to … expose you to experiences that you don’t [get] as a student. Attend the seminars, workshops, and forums that are happening at Hopkins on a daily basis—during these events you feel the pulse of public health globally.

When you return to your community, contributing to protecting health and saving lives—millions at a time is the best way to express gratitude to/repay what you received from your alma mater.

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