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Cathy Jo Ayotte brings spirit to Boise State football sidelines, earns bachelor’s degree online

Public health graduate Cathy Jo Ayotte riding a horse
Photo provided by Boise State Visual Services

Bronco Girl got a degree.

After spending the last six seasons opening Boise State football games by riding her horse, Blue, across the turf of Albertsons Stadium, Cathy Jo Ayotte graduated with an online Bachelor of Arts in Public Health in December 2023.

“My aunt was a Bronco Girl in the late 1980s, but she never talked about it until I became Bronco Girl,” she said. “Back then, each girl was sent over from the rodeo team and only got to do it for one game. The fact I got to do it for six years was outstanding. If I had it my way, I’d keep going.”

Ayotte began taking prerequisites at Boise State in 2018, her first football season as Bronco Girl. She enrolled in the public health program two years later, while working as an epidemiology surveillance specialist at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, including 80-100 hours per week during the pandemic.

“It was crazy,” she said. “Because I was already getting ready to take online classes, it was easy to transition to it after work. At the end of the work day, I switched over and did schoolwork. It worked out great for me.

“If I would have had to have been in a seat, in a classroom, I don’t know if I would have been able to do those two things simultaneously. I probably would have had to defer school for quite a few years until the pandemic slowed back down.”

Ayotte, who began her higher education by taking a few courses at the College of Western Idaho, and her husband, Tim, own a small ranch with three horses in Middleton, Idaho.

“It [working full-time and having a ranch] wouldn’t have been possible if I had to drive down and sit in a seat in a classroom at Boise State,” she said. “Everything was made possible because of the online format. I am a very fortunate woman.”

Public health graduate Cathy Jo Ayotte serving as Grand Marshal in the 2021 Boise State Homecoming Parade
Photo provided by Boise State Visual Services

Giddy up

Ayotte was born at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center. Horses have been a major part of her life since she first rode atop one at three days old.

“My parents took me to visit my grandparents after I got out of the hospital,” she said. “My grandfather was already on a horse. He said, ‘Give me that baby.’ He picked me up, and we went riding off. I was almost born in the saddle. I grew up riding horses more days than I didn’t. It was incredible.”

Becoming Bronco Girl seemed like a foregone conclusion for Ayotte. She was a rodeo queen for seven years, competed in horse shows and won world titles and carried flags at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in 2017. She also had the main requirement — her own horse.

“All of those things helped put my application a little higher on the list,” she said. “I was at the Council For State and Territorial Epidemiologists Conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, in June 2018 when I got a call about being Bronco Girl. Everything rolled out in its own perfect plan.”

After focusing on a career in nursing, Ayotte switched gears after realizing it wasn’t for her. She landed an administrative assistant role in the office of epidemiology (the study of epidemics) for the Idaho Division of Public Health when she was 18 years old.

“In 2009, when I was hired, the word was not known to the general public,” she said. “COVID-19 made it known. I ended up falling in love with the field. Over the course of the years, I had received a couple of promotions.

“Then, I got myself into a role where all of the people around me in that same type of role had bachelor’s, if not master’s degrees. I worked my way up, so I decided it was probably time to get that degree to match it.”

Ayotte especially enjoyed the statistics-based courses in the online Bachelor of Arts in Public Health curriculum.

“My job is very data-driven and analytical,” she said. “Any courses that had Microsoft Excel work in them were my favorites and the ones that I got the most out of. Everything I learned was immediately applicable — especially the courses in data quality and quality assurance.

“There’s a huge push in the Idaho Division of Public Health to have most employees create a performance objective that’s related to data quality, quality improvement or quality assurance.

“As I was taking those courses, I could utilize that information and put it into the projects I was creating for work. My work day and my school day went hand-in-hand for three-and-a-half years. It was wonderful. My supervisors were very happy.”

Public health graduate Cathy Jo Ayotte riding her horse at the Boise State football game vs. Fresno State
Photo provided by John Kelley, Boise State Visual Services

Happy trails

Ayotte married into a family of Boise State football season ticket holders who enjoyed seeing her and Blue on the sidelines for the last six years.

“They are excited for me,” she said. “On my mom’s side of the family, I am one of the first to get a degree; my older brother got a degree, too.

“When I went to graduation and walked across the stage, it was such an honor to know not a whole lot of people before me in my family have done the same thing. It was great to have that experience.”

Although she is happy with her current role, Ayotte knows that earning a bachelor’s degree is expanding her career horizons.

“Before I had my degree, I typically didn’t meet the minimum requirements for a promotion or to transfer laterally,” she said. “Now that I have that degree, I have a lot more opportunity to move around within the division. It would be a lot of fun to work in different bureaus within the division and get a full overall public health picture.”

In addition to her incredible experiences interacting with crowds at football games, Ayotte enjoyed the friendships she developed with her online classmates.

“There are plenty of people in their 30s like I am, earning an online degree in the evenings after working their full-time job during the day,” she said. “It felt like I fit in, which was great. You do group projects with some people for an entire semester in some classes, so you end up forming bonds with them.

“In one of the groups, I was on a cruise ship to Hawaii for two weeks with my husband. Twice a week, I jumped on a Zoom call from my cabin on the cruise ship. How often can you say you’re doing a class from a cruise ship?”

No matter which direction her career takes, Ayotte is grateful to add higher education to her experience in a field she loves.

“The classes at Boise State taught me that the world of public health is a lot wider than what I see in my cubicle,” she said. “There are things like environmental health that are part of public health.

“Getting that 30,000-foot view of public health from the program helped me not only understand my job better, but to also understand what that person down the hall and across the cubicle row is doing. It’s opened a lot of opportunities and windows.”

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