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Nicole Villarreal, Evening MBA student
Program Manager, Data Strategy and Evaluation at Chicago Public Schools

Tell us about yourself in a nutshell

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, moved to Chicago for college, and I've stayed in the city ever since. I currently live in the South Loop with my husband, two cats, and a dog. My background is primarily in the healthcare space. I spent the first seven years of my career at a Medicaid health plan, where I worked in operations and regulatory affairs. I knew there was a financial implication every time I tried to make an optimal decision, but didn't know enough about the economics of healthcare to fully make those decisions. That is the reason I decided to pursue my MBA. 

A big factor in my decision to attend Booth was discovering the University of Chicago’s MBA/Graduate Program in Healthcare Administration and Policy (GPHAP). It’s an interdisciplinary program where you not only explore healthcare, but get to learn with students going into completely different career paths, which was an interesting way to learn more about the system.

Tell us about the progression of your career

In my third quarter at Booth, I was recruited to run operations for Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Medicaid program, led by a Booth alumnus. I was responsible for revenue, contract, and vendor management of the school system’s Medicaid program. I started to become interested in the social determinants of health, which led to a pivot in February 2022 to a program manager position in our Office of Student Health and Wellness. Now I focus on intergovernmental data agreements with Medicaid, as well as some of the other social service programs like SNAP (food security) and TANF (cash assistance).. I am learning so much about the whole picture of what keeps a child healthy. It's not just access to insurance, but it's utilization of those benefits, food security, safe housing, etc.

Why did GPHAP draw you to Booth?

The program teaches you how to be a strong leader in the healthcare industry by giving you a holistic view, through coursework as well as interactions with your classmates. There are two tracks to choose from: a Certificate in Health Administration and Policy or a Certificate in Health Administration and Policy with a Concentration in Global Health. The capstone class allows you to work with an interdisciplinary team on a problem currently facing a healthcare client. We are also required to attend three co-curricular events per quarter that provide opportunities to engage with the whole GPHAP cohort, which is made up of students from Booth, the Law School, the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and the Harris School of Public Policy.

By working with so many different students, you get to look at the healthcare system from a variety of angles. You explore healthcare by talking to people from other disciplines about what matters to them and how they would approach problems. Full-time students do a supervised practicum like an internship or fellowship, while Part-Time students working in healthcare-related roles can satisfy this requirement with their jobs. The nice thing about GPHAP is these classes count as part of the 20 courses you need to graduate from Booth, so it doesn’t add to your course load.

Were you able to build relationships among the cohort?

Absolutely. The cohort is made up of about 50 students (give or take 10 from each school), and you’re assigned a squad within the cohort. I also applied to be a Brown Fellow, which meant I was the representative for Booth to help with event planning, so I got to know the other schools’ Brown Fellows really well. They’ve been a great group to turn to for career advice. I am also grateful to have built a relationship with GPHAP’s incredibly kind and knowledgeable Program Director, Laura Botwinick, who provides GPHAP students with countless opportunities to deeper explore all areas of the healthcare system. 

What were some of your favorite healthcare-related classes?

I enjoyed Healthcare and Data Analytics as well as Managing Service Operations. Strategic Management courses are really good, too. I took Mergers & Acquisition Strategy, which is really relevant in the healthcare space, as is Project Management. The first GPHAP class requirement, Introduction to U.S. Health Policy and Politics,is extremely helpful for understanding the healthcare industry in the United States.

The capstone course is probably one of the coolest experiences I've had. I loved being able to work with a business on a problem they actually needed to solve. It's a super unique class that fits into the Part-Time schedule and provides awesome real-world experience. I was passionate about my project, which was to enhance equity in the pharmaceutical industry for the Institute for Healthcare Management. I was grateful for the opportunity.

Name a highlight of your Booth experience

There's a lot. GPHAP was honestly a highlight of my career. Being able to share my insights into how I view healthcare, and learn from others who are going to go on to be leaders in the system is huge. Both my classmates at Booth and at GPHAP really made the experience for me. Everyone here is a wildly impressive human being and it’s helpful to have outstanding classmates who can teach you and push you along the way. 

I don't think enough Part-Time students think that a program like GPHAP is feasible. I know it seems difficult to manage within the confines of your schedule, but the structure of the program makes it possible. I loved every moment of it.