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Michelle Estes uses education to get the vitals on her career


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Mark Johannsson, DHSc, MPH

This article has been reviewed by Mark Jóhannsson, DHSc, MPH, Dean, College of Health Professions.

Portrait of Michelle Estes

Michelle Estes (MHA, 2022)

“I try to learn something new every day,” explains Michelle Estes, program management advisor for clinical operations, readiness and performance at Cigna Healthcare. “It could be a new vocabulary word or a new process. Learning keeps your mind sharp.”

For Estes, this anthem to education is both personal and professional. She is a first-generation college graduate who earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing and spent more than two decades working in hospitals. Her husband is a lawyer; her daughter is in medical school with an eye toward becoming a hospitalist.

Professionally, Estes has worked in nursing education and diabetes education. About five years ago, she joined Cigna Healthcare on the recommendation of her friend and colleague Chandy McDonald, who knew Estes would thrive in an environment where education and healthcare are deeply intertwined.

“Her passion for education and learning is evident in everything she does,” McDonald says. “She makes learning fun and relatable.”

Education, in other words, is a way of life for Estes. Her blend of on-the-job and formal training is one that has brought fulfillment in all the right places. But it wasn’t easy.

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Goals postponed, not canceled

“I have always been in some form of nursing education, so I knew high[er] learning was important for my personal growth journey,” Estes says. “After my daughter graduated college, I decided it was time to pursue a master’s degree.”

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait for a goal, especially for someone like Estes, who seems to capably handle a hundred things at once. She’s always moving, reading, replying or chatting in her trademark Gulf Coast drawl. But her commitment to her husband and daughter meant delaying gratification in the education arena.

“I focused my attention on raising a family and being a good wife and mother, which is hard when your children are young. You are tugged in many different directions,” Estes explains.

She promised herself that she’d get that master’s degree at some point. And, as McDonald attests, Estes’ promises are as good as gold.

Portrait of Chandy McDonald

Chandy McDonald

“Michelle is a person of her word,” McDonald says. “If she tells you she is going to do something, you can consider it done.”

This kind of follow-through helped Estes in her Master of Health Administration (MHA) program at University of Phoenix, which she chose for its flexibility and accessibility. It also meant she approached every class with calculated determination.

Take the group projects, for instance. As soon as Estes found classmates she connected with, she made sure they worked together in every class. 

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“I took the lead on every single group project to make sure that the paper was correct, that our items were on time,” Estes recalls. She’d often get her husband to proofread the papers for grammar and style, and her Type A personality saw her through the rest of the submission process.

In the end, her teammates applauded her attention to detail. Estes recalls: “I had an MD from New York who was in our class, and he would always send me text messages and say, ‘Thank you so much. I had to work a night shift, and I appreciate you look at all that.’”

“Michelle has a strong work ethic,” McDonald adds. “She always follows through. She has great attention to detail.”

Living the dream

That meticulousness stands Estes in good stead at Cigna, where she manages clinical operations. Since completing her MHA in December 2022, she’s moved into a project management role that keeps her juggling a lot of tasks, sometimes seven days a week.

“It’s a very big job,” she says.

Cigna has been a good if surprising fit for this former nurse. “Cigna has a great education program,” she says, noting that career growth is a major focus at the company. “They support continuing education and will help with a portion of the cost.”

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Cigna’s culture of learning, as well as its mission and opportunities, resonate with Estes, who sees herself working for at least another decade. Her daughter is planning her wedding and anticipating a residency program after medical school, which leaves Estes and her husband free to pack up their motorhome and explore national parks, where they love to camp.

In the meantime, Estes will keep on learning.

Headshot of Elizabeth Exline


Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.


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