Marvella Ford, PhD, from Beekmantown High School to the White House

·11 min read

Apr. 29—PLATTSBURGH — Marvella E. Ford, PhD earned her title due to a fortuitous intervention in Beekmantown High Schools' guidance office that led her to Cornell University.


"It was because of a guidance counselor at Beekmantown. She was instrumental in getting me to Cornell because she called me into her office and said, 'So where are you thinking about going to college?'" said Ford, who is a faculty member in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"And we talked, and she said. 'I think it would be good if you went to Cornell University.' It turned out there was a program at Cornell, the Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP). They had a network of guidance counselors all over New York state who were working to identify students from rural areas who are underrepresented in college and universities or who were just living in rural areas and students from different financial backgrounds could be eligible to apply to Cornell and get in if they had some guidance."

Ford suspects her guidance counselor was part of that network.

"She got me connected, and I took the SAT and had an interview with someone from Cornell," she said.

"You had to have an interview to get in. My parents were working, so I didn't have transportation. But, she arranged for me to do a phone interview. It was lovely. We talked for an hour. It was fantastic. Then I got into Cornell, which was a tremendous blessing for me and for my family."

Years later there in Charleston, Ford was tasked with developing a student research forum for the National Conference on Health Disparities.

"That conference was started by Congresswoman Donna Christian-Christensen and Congressman Jim Clyburn," she said.

"Dr. David Rivers at the Medical University of South Carolina was the organizer of the conference. He charged me with developing a national student research forum national as part of that conference. I wrote a paper about it that's published. It was released this year in 2023."

One of the national committee members was Dr. Milford Greene.

"We were talking at dinner one night, and we realized we had a Cornell connection," she said.

"He described his network that he had developed of guidance counselors all over the state of New York. I told him my story, and it's because of the program that he and his director developed. It came full circle because of the network they developed that I ended up at Cornell. and now he is working on a committee for me."

Ford is glad she had a chance to thank Greene for what he did.

"Programs like that are so important, and I know that we are in a time period where people think those programs are not important but if you are in an area where you are kind of isolated and you don't know about the programs, you don't know how to get to different schools, being smart is not enough," she said.

"We need access. The program that he developed really provided access for me to get Cornell, so I was very thankful.

"That's really the story of my life. Everything that we do is to promote access to healthcare. You can apply the same. It's the same story. Living close to a hospital doesn't mean you have access. Living in a community where there is health care doesn't mean you have access."

Ford's team leads programs, which provide access to people, so they can utilize these programs and have better health outcomes.


Cornell was awesome for Ford.

"For me to be around that many Black students was amazing," she said.

"All my friends from New York City was saying, this is terrible. There's so few of us. I was saying this is wonderful. There are so many of us. Very different perspective."

Ford was a member of the Pamoja Ni, Cornell's gospel choir, and she attended a pre-summer program there.

"It was a lifesaver because I think if I hadn't done that program coming from Plattsburgh, I would have just been overwhelmed," she said.

"It would have been overwhelming for me. Cornell is such a big place. That summer program met for six or seven weeks, run through COSEP, the Committee On Special Educational Programs."

The students took courses and earned six credit hours or nine credit hours that summer.

"The idea was to bring us in to give us some time to acclimate to the school and also to let us take courses so that we didn't have to load up our freshman year, the first semester with all the stress and anxiety and being away from home and learning a new environment and a different culture," she said.

"Some of the people in that summer program, I'm still friends with."


Ford majored in human service studies in the College of Human Ecology.

"I was really interested in health disparities," she said.

"I noticed that a lot of the papers I was reading were coming out of the University of Michigan. I remember my sophomore year, we used to have to go to the library to pick course packs to read. Most of the articles were coming out of the University of Michigan, and I thought I've got to get to the University of Michigan to study with these people because they had so much knowledge and they were so advanced in that area."

Ford's undergraduate advisor, Dr. Josephine Allen, the first Black woman in the history of Cornell to ever get tenure in 1987, graduated from a joint doctoral program at the University of Michigan.

"So, she connected me to Michigan," she said.

"God is in all of this. I could tell you so many stories. All these connections did not just happen. They came from God. Just having the right people in the right place at the right time, it's just amazing. She told me about the dual-doctoral program at the University of Michigan. I knew I wanted to go there because in six years, you get two master degree and a combined PhD in both disciplines."

Ford studied social psychology, and during her first year there, she received a Michigan Merit Fellowship.

"My graduate advisor said, 'I noticed in a lot of your papers you are writing about older adults. Are you interested in aging research?'" Ford said.

"I said absolutely because I'm interested in health outcomes. I was focusing on older adults and their health outcomes."


Ford had a five-year fellowship in aging research and joined her advisor's National Institute on Aging Fellowship as a Predoctoral Fellow.

"We have to take that GRE," she said.

"I had a friend who was working in the counseling office. We were studying the material, and when it came time to take the GRE we were really dismayed because we found out the test was being offered in Scranton, Pa. He didn't have a car. I didn't have a car. We were trying to figure out how we were going to get from Ithaca to Scranton, Pa. to take this test."

They figured out they could take a Greyhound and pool their very little money to rent a hotel room.

"We each were going to bring our sleeping bags, and we were just going to sleep on the floor the night before in the hotel room," she said.

"I didn't really know him that well. He was a nice guy. We studied together. I was thinking, well we have to get through this test."

Ford went to the graduate library at Cornell, and a student working behind the desk was wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt.

"I said, 'Oh Michigan, that's where I want to go to school. I said, 'Do you know someone who goes there?,'" she said.

"He said, 'Yes, my sister goes there. She got me this sweatshirt.' I said, 'Oh, I really want to go there.' I don't know what made me ask him, but it was probably the Lord, I just said are you taking the GRE on Saturday, the October 4 in Scranton, Pa.? He said, 'Yes, why do you ask?' I kid you not. I said, 'Well, my friend and I have been studying, but we don't have a way to get to the test site. How are you getting there?'"

The student said he was riding with a friend.

"I said, 'Do you think your friend has room in the car for myself and my friend?'" she said.

"The guy said, 'Well, let me ask him.' I thought I would get his number, and I'll give it a week. If I don't hear from him, we'll get our bus tickets. He walks to the end of the counter in the library and talks to a guy there. They look over at me. They're pointing. The guy finally goes, 'Yeah, whatever.'

"The guy comes back and said my friend said you and your friend can ride with us. Just like that."

Ford and the students arranged for a 5 a.m. pick up on the specified date for the two-hour drive.

At the appointed hour, Ford and her study mate stood outside waiting, wondering, if their ride would show.

"Then, we saw the headlights coming around the circle," she said.

"There they were. We were such a diverse group because the guy behind the counter was white, his friend was Korean American, and my friend and I were Black. We had the absolute best time. We just chatted and laughed. Oh, it was a miracle.

"We were all so relaxed by the time we got to the test. We walked into the room where we were taking the test, and I looked up and the proctor was Mr. Brian Kavanagh.

"He was a track coach at Beekmantown when I was there. He was the proctor. He said, 'Oh, Marvella, it's so good to see you.' I said, 'What are you doing here?'"

Kavanagh was taking a graduate course in Scranton, and he was the proctor that Saturday. "It was meant to be," she said.


At the University of Michigan, Ford earned a 1987 M.S.W. Policy and Planning, 1989 M.S. Social Psychology, and 1992 Ph.D. Social Work and Social Psychology. She also completed a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in Public Health and Aging.

"Michigan was just a great experience," she said.

"I learned so much. The whole time I was there, everything I did was on health disparity."


At 28 with doctorate in hand, Ford went to the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit where her projects included a focus on asthma and diabetes. There, she worked for Dr. Barbara C. Tilley, who led the Center for Medical Treatment Effectiveness Program and Resource Center for Minority Aging Research.

After eight fantastic years, Ford moved on to the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Her appointment was at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.

"I had two amazing directors there," Ford said.

"Mentorship is a key. Nelda Wray and Carol Ashton were the directors. I learned so much from them about leadership. They really helped me to grow into my leadership skills at the Houston Center for Quality of Care and Utilization Research."

Ford was there three years before she joined Dr. Tilley, who was now in Charleston.

"I came to her department," she said.

"When I was at Henry Ford, I was doing cancer research. I came here in 2005, 2006, for the Medical University of South Carolina, the Hollings Cancer Center named after Fritz Hollings.

"This was his vision. I had a chance to meet him several times. He was really a wonderful man in my opinion. I'm grateful to work in a place where he really wanted to create a cancer center where everyone could come."


Ford's official title is the associate director of Population Sciences and Community Outreach and Engagement.

During segregation, Hollings witnessed people lined up trying to get in the one hospital where Black people could go.

"I have had treatment there twice," Ford said.

"My surgeon asked my team if they could set up a rotation schedule to deliver dinners to my home. It makes me want to cry. They are very caring. We're the only National Cancer Institute designated cancer center in our state. We are able to offer clinical trials for people in the state."

Ford was just invited to join the National Minority Quality Forum Advisory Board.

"This group works with a lot to make policy recommendations to improve health equity," she said.

From the halls of Beekmantown High School, Ford traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the White House Holiday Open House last December.

"The First Lady (Jill Biden) came here to Charleston to our Cancer Center in October 2021," she said.

"We had a great time. She's very much promoting cancer health equity after her visit."