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From Aspiring Ballerina to Future Health Care Leader

By Mariel Harden

Mariel Harden, MHA, is in her second year of Penn Medicine’s Administrative Fellowship and is pursuing her doctorate in organizational leadership. Here, she shares how she found her passion in health care administration.

Mariel Harden, MHA

Growing up, I had one plan: to be a professional ballet dancer. And I got pretty close. In high school, I got to perform with the Pennsylvania Ballet and attended numerous intensive summer courses across the country. My junior year of high school, though, something shifted in me. The pressure to stay thin and all the other activities I was missing out on got to me. I decided to stop training professionally and went from having a laser-focused plan to no direction at all.

It would take a while for me to find out what else energized me. At Penn State University, I would have graduated “undecided” if I could have. I eventually did choose a major—human development and family studies—and while I graduated with a high GPA and memories that would last me a lifetime, I felt unprepared to find a career and a job.

Mariel Harden Ballet
Harden once aspired to be a professional ballerina.

Both my parents had worked at Penn Medicine (they actually met in the lobby of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; my dad was a security officer for HUP from 1985 to 1990, and my mom had a great career at both HUP and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center as a nurse in the post-anesthesia care unit). But I never saw myself in health care. I still have to close my eyes whenever I get a shot or have blood drawn.

And yet, one day in 2015, out of desperation, I found myself on the Penn Medicine careers site. I could not believe all of the different types of roles that existed here. I decided to apply for a five-week paid training program leading to a job as a patient service associate at the Patient Access Center, the health system’s largest call center. Patient service associates are often the first point of contact for patients, scheduling appointments, sending messages to the practices and patients, and responding when problems arise. Before I knew it, at the age of 23, I had my first real “adult” job, making more than minimum wage and, to my parents’ delight, obtaining my own health insurance.

From a First Job at Penn Medicine to a Career Path

Working as a patient service associate, I loved my hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and thought of each patient phone call as a performance, trying to make each one better than the last. Then, one day, my manager called me into her office and asked me what I wanted to do with my career at Penn Medicine. I panicked because I didn’t have a real answer. But soon after, I was given a large “stretch project” where I was an integral part of setting up patients who came in through the Emergency Department at Pennsylvania Hospital with primary care providers. I then received my first promotion to patient services coordinator at the Access Center and continued to advance over the next seven years, eventually becoming practice manager for the surgery multispecialty practice at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

I had finally realized my passion lay in leadership and employee relations. I knew that getting more education would help to propel my career even more, so with the help of Penn Medicine’s tuition reimbursement program, I obtained my master’s degree in health care administration and began studying for my doctorate in organizational leadership. I’m now in my second year of Penn Medicine’s Administrative Fellowship, a two-year project-based program where fellows are mentored and guided by the health system’s senior executive team and work on a variety of projects and initiatives across the organization. In between all of this, I was also selected to be a new employee orientation facilitator.

The Impact of Mentors and Inspiration

Looking back over the past seven years, the main reason I have stayed with Penn Medicine and have had such successful career growth is because there have been so many leaders here who have acted as mentors and sponsors for me, volunteering me for roles and projects and seeing something in me that I am still coming to recognize: potential. Thanks to them, I went from a 23-year-old who had no plan to a 30-year-old with a career path.

I have learned that life doesn’t always go our way, and how we recover and make the best of what we have is what matters. Do what you can to make sure you are well-rounded and don’t be discouraged if you find your passions and interests shifting and involving. You will end up where you are supposed to be in the right time.

Penn Medicine employees: Did you have an unconventional path to health care or within Penn Medicine? Email [email protected] and tell us about your career journey.


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