After Family Friends’ Double Homicide, Online Public Health Student Vows to Combat Gun Violence

Mary Rozelle plans to use her Master of Public Health (MPH) online degree to help enhance access to care and address such urgent issues as gun violence and Alzheimer’s disease.

Mary Rozelle left a longtime career as a dermatology physician assistant because she wanted to achieve a wider impact than is possible by helping just one patient at a time.

“I loved what I did, but found that social determinants were making it hard for many patients to receive necessary care,” she said.

Some had caretaking responsibilities, while others lacked dependable transportation, couldn’t afford health insurance or didn’t know they had to meet a deductible first.

“I wanted to be part of the solution in challenging the capitalistic mindset of how health insurance and the health care system work,” Rozelle said. “I thought I could have the biggest impact through the field of public and global health.”

Rozelle brings a deep international perspective to this work. Although born in Taiwan, she grew up in Iran. Her father — who spoke English, Cantonese and Mandarin — was in demand as a pilot, and his service included stints with Air America in Laos and with the Taiwanese Air Force. Then, he was stationed in Tehran.

“We loved the experience,” she said of her family, which includes an older and younger sister. “My childhood memories are of Iran and returning to Taiwan and Singapore, where I have a lot of family, just to keep up my language skills.”

Attending school in Tehran, Rozelle added English and French to those skills at an early age, but “then the political situation made it unsafe for women to live there, especially since we were foreigners,” she recalled.

Her father was reassigned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but he wanted his daughters to receive an esteemed education, so he moved the family to the United States when Rozelle was in third grade. He couldn’t join the family until her senior year in high school. That left her mother, who did not speak English at the time, to take care of the three girls in their new home in Texas.

“My mom served as a strong female role model,” Rozelle said. “These experiences empowered me to see the world through a different lens.”

While she had always been interested in science and medicine, Rozelle said she entered the physician assistant field “because I knew I could make a difference with patients in a shorter period of time.” She moved to California’s Bay Area, where she and her husband are raising a now-teenage daughter, and continued finding fulfillment in her career.

But Rozelle increasingly felt herself drawn toward a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree and the opportunities it would offer to lift the voices of marginalized communities, especially women and children.

“I chose USC because it provides a flexible program taught by world-renowned faculty with international experience and connections,” she explained. “Being a Trojan has been one of the best experiences of my life.”

The online MPH, offered through the Keck School of Medicine of USC, includes a part-time or full-time option, “which allows for a more equitable education for people like me who have to juggle a lot of different responsibilities,” she added.

In Rozelle’s case, remote learning allowed her to tend to her mother-in-law, who recently passed away from Alzheimer’s disease.

“She lived in Houston, and as a result of Hurricane Harvey in 2018, her daughter could not take care of her,” Rozelle said. “So we moved her to a memory care facility in California where she would be just five minutes away from us.”

Rozelle’s devotion to family and friends helps drive her public health mission. Witnessing the ravages caused by Alzheimer’s to her mother-in-law, she said, “made me realize that a lot has to be changed — not just locally but also on an international level because so many countries don’t have the resources to properly care for their elderly, especially those with dementia.”

While she appreciates the MPH’s entire curriculum, Rozelle said her best experience has been engaging in research with Associate Professor Mellissa Withers, who also directs the online MPH program, and Professor of Research Susanna Hempel.

“The entire program has given me the research tools and statistical analysis skills to understand what the data tells us,” Rozelle explained. “The health of one country really impacts the health of other countries — that’s a really important concept we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Stopping gun violence is another cause that Rozelle has a personal reason to be passionate about. In 2018, two close family friends were murdered during a home invasion.

“My parents met them when they all lived in Laos, and they all grew up together,” Rozelle said. “In the Chinese custom, we always referred to them as aunt and uncle.”

The families had both immigrated to Texas, “so my parents would get together with them for holidays and for trips.”

“They lived the American dream,” Rozelle said of the couple. “They received a great education, started up Subway franchises, gave back to the community and helped build the Buddhist temples right outside of Houston. And they also helped out anyone in need. The events that led to their murder were completely senseless.”

Fortunately, arrests were made, and Rozelle is confident that “justice will be served.” However, gun restrictions have only loosened in Texas since then. Knowing that policies are unlikely to change in that state, she said, “I do what I can for California.”

“My family raised us to be social activists and to improve the community in general,” Rozelle said. And she has raised her daughter with similar ideals. “What I try to impart is to always think of other people, not to make yourself feel better but to really make other people feel better,” she added.

She acknowledged that the challenges are immense. More than 6 million people are living with — and ultimately dying from — Alzheimer’s in the U.S. alone. Meanwhile, gun violence takes the lives of nearly 41,000 Americans each year, while seriously injuring many more.

“I just want to be able to make a difference somehow,” Rozelle said.

No matter what their field of study, MPH students join in fostering change through organizations such as the USC chapter of Students Demand Action, a nationwide coalition committed to stopping gun violence. The USC chapter also addresses economic and educational disparities, along with other concerns that affect health.

As she works to advance public health, Rozelle said, “I have a dream that the real-life experiences of women and families can be at the table in all discussions and all policies and through research.”

Learn more about the Master of Public Health (MPH) online program today.

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