Naomi Chen visited the UAB School of Public Health in 2007 as a prospective master’s student. She didn’t know what to expect or whom she might meet.
Connie Kohler, Dr.P.H., professor of health behavior and director of graduate studies for the department, was the person to engage Chen and enlighten her on the virtues of a UAB public health master’s degree. Kohler familiarized Chen with the department and showed her research initiatives to the prospective student. But it was the way Kohler delivered the message that really struck a chord with Chen. She was warm, encouraging and passionate.

Connie Kohler enjoys teaching students one-on-one like Mike Taylor, an advanced doctoral student in health education and promotion. Kohler serves a mentor to Taylor — and he is grateful for her guidance.
“I immediately felt at home,” Chen says. “Dr. Kohler’s friendliness and accessibility were key factors in my decision to attend UAB.”

And Kohler’s guidance as a mentor led to Chen nominating her for awards, including the Graduate School’s Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentorship — an award Kohler earned in 2010. Since Chen put together the book of letters nominating Kohler for that award, she figured she should send it to the American Public Health Association (APHA), too. Because of that, Kohler recently was named a recipient of the APHA Student Assembly Excellence in Mentoring Award. The award is given annually to senior public health academics or practitioners who take an active role in mentoring students and young professionals through regular contact, professional development, research support or joint publications.

“Dr. Kohler is more than an innovative researcher,” Chen says. “She shares freely of herself and takes a genuine interest in her students. When people ask how I am enjoying graduate school, I tell them that I am getting what I came for — and more — and that I owe my success in large part to Dr. Kohler.”

Engaging students
Kohler is not one to seek attention and recognition for her work, but she enjoys what she does and relishes the opportunity to engage students.

“I like teaching in the classroom,” says Kohler, who teaches two courses a year in health communication. “I have my good days and bad days at it, but I just discovered along the way that working with students one-on-one is a lot of fun.”

Kohler, a 27-year UAB employee, has mentored students extensively for the past 15 years, and she does admit to possessing an affinity for explaining things to other people.

“If somebody doesn’t know something, I like to explain it to them,” she says. “I just find that really rewarding. Even when I was a little kid I wanted to play school and be the teacher. It’s kind of showing off in a way I guess — I know something you don’t know, and here let me tell it to you — but it’s also a social thing. I like getting to know the students. I probably spend more time than a lot of people getting to know them personally — not that that is the best way to do it; it’s just the way I am.”

Students admire the high academic standards Kohler sets for herself and them and how her teaching strategies often draw them into thoughtful and engaging conversations on health communications theory. And they are especially appreciative that she shows a willingness to engage them personally and get to know them.

That personal relationship was key to Angela Warren Baumann continuing on her path in school. Baumann, a fourth-year doctoral student in health behavior, was an excellent and diligent student. She also was a mom-to-be in spring 2008 and was going to miss time while on maternity leave. Kohler worked with Baumann and enabled her to complete the requirements of a course during her leave so she could maintain her progress in the program.

“She was kind and compassionate in balancing the need to complete assignments in her course and realizing that I needed time to recuperate after just having a baby,” Baumann says. “I gained even more respect for Dr. Kohler during this semester because I realized she respected me as a whole person — one with responsibilities to school and family.”

Kohler believes helping students navigate issues like Baumann’s are essential.

“As a mentor, you have to help students navigate more than just the professional aspects of things,” Kohler says.

Learning from others
Kohler says she has been the beneficiary of a mentor as well. In fact, she says Bill Bailey, M.D., professor of medicine in pulmonary, allergy and critical care, often crosses her mind.

“I worked in the Lung Health Center for several years early in my doctoral career, and I learned a lot from Bill Bailey in terms of research and how to treat people,” Kohler says. “He was a wonderful mentor.”

And because of that, Bailey was among those she thanked in Denver during the 2010 annual meeting of the American Public Health Association where she received the Student Assembly award. In fact, Kohler thanked Bailey and every student she has mentored in her career in a rhyme.

“I had to give a three-minute acceptance speech, and I didn’t know what to do,” Kohler says.
“I wound up naming them in rhyme in order to thank them. And I didn’t miss anybody.”