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On a Mission

May 1, 2017

Very few individuals can gather enough experience before going to college to be absolutely sure of their chosen major, especially when following the traditional path of starting the fall after high school graduation. Health Services Administration senior, Toni Ross, is one of the few who can say that her experiences before coming to Drexel undeniably revealed the path she wanted to pursue. But Toni Ross is anything but traditional.
Ross said that what she’s interested in is rather complex. “I hope to merge my experience with emergency management and disaster preparedness with the healthcare industry. I want to guarantee that medical professionals and the community-at-large are ready for large-scale disasters and emergencies,” she stated. “My dream job would be working at a facility as an emergency planner.” You might ask where she gained the kind of knowledge that would lead her to want to do something that specific. Her answer would be, “the United States Air Force.” Ross spent 12 years in the military where her jobs included maintenance scheduler for F-16s in Saudi Arabia, graduate medical program clerkship coordinator at Travis Air Force Base and tactical operations center coordinator in Afghanistan. 
Early on in her military career, she received some great advice from her supervisor who, at the time, was having a difficult time finding a job. He said, “Listen kid, make sure you’re marketable when you get out of here. The military is going to get what it wants out of you, so you have to get what you want out of them.” Ross did some research before re-enlisting and found that the healthcare industry was poised for growth; she would be able to get a job as well as an education. That’s when her focus in the Air Force turned toward healthcare administration. Her first job out of tech school was in air medical evacuation. “It was awesome. I didn’t go on any missions. We just retrieved individuals on the ground,” she said. “I did become certified in driving a one-and-a-half ton truck and a learned how to parallel park a 24-passenger bus,” Ross pointed out. “I’m out of practice, so I wouldn’t dare try to park a bus now.” 
While deployed to Afghanistan, she coordinated and tracked 700 medical evacuation missions and 172 local and coalition patient transfers. Ross managed 10 emergency blood and medical resupply missions to forward operating locations and prepared at least 125 classified briefings for the Craig Joint Theater Hospital commander and executive staff. Her positions at Travis Air Force Base furthered her experience in healthcare administration as she coordinated medical student clinical rotations, created job position manuals, vetted executive staff, proctored privacy tests and increased facility compliance among other duties.
Ross returned home to Philadelphia after she was discharged and, needing a place to land, she moved in with her parents who were aging and needed some help. “I knew I wanted to go back to school, so I started at the Goodwin College of Professional Studies, but it didn’t work out,” she conveyed. “It’s a lot different from when I was 17 years old at Eastern University.” Because she needed a job, she started working at a non-profit organization. That’s when she found a flyer for Veterans Upward Bound. She doubted what the flyer stated, that there was a free program for veterans to go to school, so she called and got program director, Diane Sandefur on the phone. “I went into their office and met their fantastic staff. Tyrone Williams, Diane’s right hand, helped me enroll in courses there, like how to navigate college life. Then I was ready to return to Drexel,” added Ross. She met with Health Services Administration Chair Kristine Mulhorn, PhD before coming back. Mulhorn shared her belief in Ross and cautioned that pursuing a degree was one of the most selfish things a person could do. Ross took that to mean she would have to prepare those individuals who had come to solely depend on her. “I told them that I needed to do this and that they would be on their own for a little while. I’ve been here ever since,” she said. 
Ross is preparing to graduate in June and has been looking for a job. She attends different networking events and is up until late at night researching opportunities and companies. She wants to move back to California to be near her son, so that aspect sets another challenge to overcome. She’s put a lot of thought into what she wants to do. That is really helpful when looking for a job. 
“Initially, my ideal job was at FEMA. I wanted to be a liaison with local hospitals to make sure their staffs were trained for everything we plan for but don’t really think about,” she shared. That led her to thinking about being an emergency planner for a hospital or other facility. “I want to make sure they are prepared and trained for anything and everything thinking far outside the box,” Ross explained. “I want to work with the Red Kite Project developed by Drexel alumnus Zach Stone BHC ‘11. They are doing very important work in conflict management and being trauma-informed,” she noted. “If they could take that program and put it in a healthcare system or hospital to help providers and staff de-escalate situations and be prepared for various circumstances like active shooters, they would know how to respond and react instinctually.” This, in Ross’ mind, holds true for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina when she worked as a national disaster medical system liaison. She was stationed in Northern California, but she was able to help facilitate bed movement so those affected by that disaster were placed in a safer environment.
When asked if she feels like Drexel had prepared her for her future, she has very strong feelings. “Right out of the gate, my program emphasized developing leadership skills and thinking beyond your walls, boundaries and education,” Ross explained. “Drexel exposes you to many other perspectives you may never have considered.” She recounted her experience in Mulhorn’s disabilities studies class where she got the opportunity to learn about activists and advocates who happened to be handicapped. “Now I’m looking at the world from their experience,” she added.
Ross noted that within her classes, discussions around career management and reactions to real world scenarios happened often to better prepare students for entering the workforce. “My professors share themselves with every student bringing different aspects of the healthcare industry to the classroom,” she said. When asked if she had a favorite class or professor her answer was simple — all of them. 
Her previous experience in the military didn’t include clinical settings, more supporting roles, however, Ross feels it is vital for administrators to not just work in one or the other. She feels they need both because administrators are needed everywhere. “We have a saying in the Air Force — 4AO, ‘we’re in demand and we’re indispensable.'” It is a motto they all took to heart and knew that they could go anywhere and do anything. “While I was deployed in Afghanistan, I worked in a support intelligence role in a hospital. I can apply those skills in any setting,” asserted Ross. 
There are many things that both the military and Drexel taught her, but it seems that the most important thing that Health Services Administration helped her realize is that anything can be done. “I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be a Drexel Dragon. I will make sure that I leave here and have a great impact on the community, and represent Drexel in a positive way,” articulated Ross.

Written by Roberta Perry