New school year marks beginning of undergraduate public health program

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Monday, September 4, 2017 - 4:25pm

This fall, the School of Public Health is launching its undergraduate public health major program, with its first cohort of 95 students.

Gary Harper, the director of the office of undergraduate education at the Public Health School, as well as a professor of health behavior and health education and global public health, said he chaired the task force that was created in 2014 to develop the undergraduate program. The initial idea for the creation of a program came from the dean’s office at the School of Public Health and Martin Philbert, the former dean, who is now the University’s provost.

“It’s something that has been talked about at various times here in the School of Public Health and I think the timing was right,” Harper said. “There just seemed to be the time to actually get serious about creating something and figuring out what we could do in the undergraduate space.”

Students apply to the program in the winter term of their sophomore year. This year, there were 131 complete applications.

Harper said there continues to be a lot of interest in the program, even inquiries from high school students who have heard about the new major and are wondering what they can do to be accepted as sophomores.

“The group of applicants were all, I would say, stellar applicants — people with a lot of great experiences, a lot of really beneficial coursework,” he said. “It was a quite impressive group. In terms of what we’re looking for, we really do take a holistic approach to the review process. We’re not just looking for some particular GPA cutoff. We are really looking at well-rounded students that have a good understanding of what public health is and what public health does, and a real commitment and compassion for public health.”

Harper referenced a set of guiding principles, which can be found on the program’s website, and said the program looks to see if applicants are in alignment with them. Such principles include social justice, cultural humility and interdisciplinary focus, among others.

In terms of acceptance, Harper said the program plans to keep its acceptance rate about the same for the next admissions cycle, about 95. He said after the first cohort completes the program, it will likely increase the number of students admitted.

Logistically, the program offers either a Bachelor’s of Arts in community and global public health or a Bachelor’s of Science in public health sciences. According to Harper, within each major, there are a set of four integrated core courses, which address various aspects of public health, from an interdisciplinary and integrated lens.

“In graduate training in public health, you would take a course on epidemiology, a course on biostatistics, a course on health management, things like that,” Harper said. “What we’re doing is combining different aspects of public health and putting them together because at the core of our program, we’re really focusing on what we call liberal education.”

Liberal education, according to Harper, is an approach to learning that helps prepare students to deal with complexity, diversity and social change.

“We’re not just teaching public health skills,” he said. “Some types of undergraduate public health programs teach skills and they’re more of a skills training degree, then you get some kind of certification. We want students to be able to think in innovative and complex ways about the public health challenges that we currently face but then we want to prepare them for the future public health challenges. ”

Though the program is only in its first year, Harper said, based on statistics from other schools’ public health programs, some students are expected to go into medicine or other health-related fields, some go into graduate programs in public health, others go into the workforce — departments of public health, the Peace Corps or working in nonprofit organizations with a health focus — and some even go into law, engineering and other fields.

Faculty for the program will consist of faculty from the Public Health School, who teach graduate courses and have real-world experience in the field of public health.

Harper said the goal of the program is to take an interdisciplinary approach to think about critical public health issues. He the program will attack issues from multiple perspectives using different lenses. He said he thinks students will feel stimulated in classes to think about things in a different way.

Harper said the program will be evaluated over the course of the year and it will be seeking feedback from its first cohort about strengths and weaknesses to make improvements and provide the best educational experience possible.

This semester, Harper is teaching a new course developed for the program, called Community Culture and Social Justice in Public Health. It is required for the B.A. students; it can be taken as an elective for the B.S. students and is also offered to non-public health students.

“The course will really be an opportunity to explore, interrogate, understand, work with different concepts of community, of culture, of social justice, because a lot of people use these terms in public health and elsewhere, but don’t often have an in-depth understanding and meaning of (them),” he said. “I want to demystify and really have people think in a critical manner. I think overall we really want students to come out of this class being able to engage in a critical analysis of the field of public health.”

It is important to look at different public health challenges and the ways in which they’re being addressed by the nation, to find the flaws and strengths, both locally and globally, said Harper.

“There’s ways in which we are doing public health work in other countries and is it really done in a manner that is building capacity or is it a way that is making other countries dependent on us?” he said. “So it’s really that critical process of really thinking about all of these different aspects of public health intervention.”

Aya Takai is a junior public health major who transferred from Oakland University. She was in a pre-professional health sciences program at Oakland and was a competitive figure skater for 15 years. Last summer, while she was training in Montreal, her mom discovered the public health program at the University of Michigan.

Takai is interested in nutrition and how it affects figure skaters. Eating disorders, according to Takai are common in skating because of how coaches critique their skaters.

“With my experience I realized that as much as an individual dietician can help with individual cases, the issue itself is really a systemic cultural idea of skaters — female skaters — needing to be thin to get the points,” she said. “It was just being pounded into us from such a young age and continued on by judges and partners and just everything in skating was contributing to this systemic issue.”

While training in Montreal, she was introduced to the issue of homeless first nations and realized in order to make impactful change, she'd need to have a background in policy expanding her interests outside of nutrition. 

Eventually, Takai said she would like to work in international policy and possibly go to law school. She said public health is relevant to daily lives and policies, and yet it is very overlooked.

Public Health junior Hussain Ali entered the University as a nursing student and then switched to LSA to study neuroscience with the plan of becoming a dentist. He became interested in public health after taking the Intro to Public Health class as a sophomore; at first, he was somewhat unsure of what the major would offer, especially with regard to his future plans to be a dentist.

However, also in his sophomore year, Ali started an organization called Michigan is My Home. Its main goal is to provide aid and relief to the homeless population in the local community.

“While I was starting Michigan is My Home last year, I learned a lot about infrastructure and policy … in Ann Arbor, and I learned a lot about how the public health has a direct impact on this type of population and the work I was doing,” he said. “I was basically working on public health projects without even knowing what public health was.”

Ali said his work in the organization is what drove him to apply to the public health program. He is pursuing the B.S. program over the B.A. program because he is interested in medicine.

“I’m leaning toward medicine and I’m really interested in the more science-y part of public health,” he said. “I really think it’s something that I can definitely do in the future, maybe for a master’s, even epidemiology or biostatistics, so it’s something that is much more interesting to me to study.”

Ali said he is most interested in learning about how public health works to limit health disparities; he hopes to gain a deeper understanding of the struggles individuals face in the local community who lack health care equity and accessibility.

“Being able to understand behind the scenes of the local infrastructure in Ann Arbor — I will be able to … make a more effective change in the community,” he said.

Ali said he thinks the program will be a great learning experience, not just because of the courses but because of the atmosphere.

“I look forward to working closely with other students who have similar goals and interests in population and global health,” he said. “We can learn together and maybe effectively come up with solutions together.”

Ali noted that when most people think of the word health, they think of medicine. He said in public health, professionals aim to prevent problems before they happen, whereas doctors and dentists just focus on treating individuals after they face an injury.

“Being able to have a public health background, and then going into the medical field as a dentist, I think I’ll be able to have that versatility, and the knowledge from both ends of how to prevent problems before they occur — and understand that problems are occurring on a global level — and then I can also maybe treat them afterward as a dentist,” he said.