Undergraduate School of Public Health: a semester in review

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Monday, December 4, 2017 - 1:30pm

This fall, the University of Michigan launched an undergraduate public health program for the first time, welcoming its first cohort of 95 upper-level students. University students applied to the program the winter of their sophomore year, and planned to take classes through the School of Public Health throughout their junior and senior years.

The program offers two degrees. One, a Bachelor of Arts in community and global public health, looks at public health through the lens of social and behavioral sciences by focusing on broader community issues related to the field. The other, a Bachelor of Science in public health sciences, concentrates primarily on the natural and applied sciences within public health.

Looking back on the program over the course of the semester, Gary Harper, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Education at the School of Public Health, would consider its time so far overall a success.

“I’m extremely happy with how it’s going,” Harper said. “As the director, I meet with small groups of our students in meetings we call ‘dialogues with the director.’ I’ve probably met with about three-quarters of our 95 students already in these groups, so I’ve been hearing continual feedback throughout the entire semester. I think that, in general, we’ve been able to do what it is we set out to do.”

Faith Reynolds, a junior pursuing the school’s Bachelor of Arts degree, pointed to this openness to feedback as a strength of the new program. She said the faculty has been very responsive to students’ input and suggestions regarding classes, professors and the overall atmosphere of the school, which has helped make her time a positive experience so far.

“The program has either met or exceeded (my expectations),” Reynolds said. “I knew it was going to be a group effort (between faculty and students) to getting the best experience out of it, but I think it's been going really well. I don’t think anyone would really disagree with that.”

Omar Ilyas, a junior aiming for the Public Health School’s sciences track, joined the program for its strong emphasis on interdisciplinary training. For him, the program’s multidisciplinary approach to public health made it the perfect fit for his variety of interests.

“I’ve always been interested in a lot of things — I was pre-law, I was pre-business, I was pre-med ­— I studied a lot of different things,” he said. “The beauty of this program is it’s an intersection of business, of health care, of policy. All the things I really enjoy, I found them in this program.”

Ilyas said this multidisciplinary approach is also reflected in his class workload. He explained that even within the structure of each class there is a comprehensive approach to learning — classes incorporate a mixture of discussion, homework, research, tests, presentations and writing. Though this can be difficult at times, Ilyas said the challenges are worth it because students will graduate with a strong foundation in a variety of types of work that will help them in future careers.

Though he is happy with the program so far in terms of classes and subjects, Ilyas said he would like to see it become more accessible to undergraduate students by incorporating more connections to internships and jobs for the undergraduate level.

“It was a public health graduate program, so a lot of the internships and opportunities the school offers are for graduate students still,” he said. “They’re trying to shift it more to give opportunities to undergraduate students as well. It’s in the process, so I hope to see more of that next year.”

Harper also noted the need for an improvement in undergraduate internship opportunities. He explained while the school is currently exploring both domestic and global possibilities with which to connect students, the newness of the program is proving to be an obstacle in this area that has yet to be fully overcome.

“Since the School of Public Health has previously only worked with master’s and doctoral students, we haven’t had the resources to really identify and support undergraduate internships,” Harper said. “It would be great if we could start to see funding for internships. Right now, we don’t have the money in the budget.”

Harper said the school does have an individual from the Office for Student Engagement and Practice dedicated to working on exploring and expanding new internship opportunities.

Going forward, Harper hopes the school will be able to identify more internships for students and find ways to communicate those opportunities effectively. He said the school hopes to see more resources dedicated to supporting internship funding to help offset potential costs, especially for students interested in international internships, thereby increasing accessibility.

Reynolds, Ilyas and Harper all talked about professors and faculty as one of the main strengths of the program. The professors for the new undergraduate program are the same as those who teach the graduate program.

“We have amazing faculty teaching the classes,” Harper said. “They do a great job of bringing public health into the classroom. They bring examples of the work they’re doing out of the real world. To have a professor that not only talks about a particular public health intervention, but is actually doing this around the globe, that’s a unique experience you don’t always get to see.”

Because they all have hands-on experience in the field, Ilyas said, his professors have also been able to help give him direction by acting almost as mentors, discussing how they became involved with the work they do today and giving advice to students.

Reynolds added the diversity of professors’ backgrounds strengthens the diversity of classes. As they are all experts in their various fields, she said, they are able to teach and communicate very effectively about the topic. Reynolds said this wide range of classes has been helping her narrow her track as she explores different options.

“Even if I can’t physically take a class, I know that they exist,” she said. “There are some graduate student courses open to undergrads if we’re interested … some things you wouldn’t even think about, but you would want to know later in your career. You can take a class on obesity, a class on cancer, a class on biopathology. Every little niche is covered, so you have a lot of options.”

Emily Youatt, the managing director of the Office of Undergraduate Education at the School of Public Health, said students’ positive response to the Public Health faculty is not one-sided. She said faculty, in turn, love being able to learn from interactions with undergraduate students and hear the new ideas they bring to public health.

“The students this fall have made a really positive impression on the faculty here, who for the most part had not taught undergraduates before and were a little timid about working with them,” she said. “The students have really shown themselves to be amazing — they’re so engaged, they’re so bright. They’re eager to ask questions that sometimes graduate students wouldn’t. They’re a little less inhibited, which makes for much more interesting classroom conversations than you might get at the master’s level.”

Youatt said because of this classroom interaction, faculty members are continually coming to her with new ideas for a class they would like to create and teach. She said a benefit of the program being brand new is there is always an opportunity to quickly incorporate these innovative ideas into the curriculum.

LSA sophomore Sydni Warner heard about the public health program from a friend in its first cohort. Because she was not sure what public health really was at the time, Warner attended an informational session to learn about public health as a whole and the University’s undergraduate program in particular.

“I liked the policy side of public health and the behind the scenes work that goes into it,” Warner said. “I think patterns of disease and disease is really interesting, so the epidemiology part especially I just fell in love with … I decided, ‘OK, this is what I want.’”

Reynolds also encouraged prospective students to consider the public health program, regardless of whether they’ve always had an interest in the field or it’s entirely unknown to them.

“For people that don’t know what public health is — either they haven’t heard of it or don’t know what it does — they should really look into it if they value public service and think they could lend a hand in any way,” she said. “If you’re interested in medicine, if you’re interested in politics, if you’re interested in biology, there’s a place for you in public health and you could find something you really love here.”