The University of Minnesota is adding a new undergraduate public health major in an effort to help meet the state’s critical need for a stronger, more diverse workforce to keep residents healthy.
The new program, which is expected to launch in the fall, adds to U’s existing public health offerings: a master’s degree and an undergraduate minor that has proven to be one of the most popular minors on the Twin Cities campuses. Other institutions in Minnesota, including the University of St. Thomas, Hamline University, and St. Catherine University, offer bachelor’s degree programs in the field.
It is the first undergraduate program in the U School of Public Health’s 78-year history and would support a career field that has been in the spotlight since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public health leaders are needed “now more than ever,” Executive Vice President and U Vice President Rachel Croson wrote in a statement. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed “opportunities for improvement in our current public health system” and exposed racial, geographic and health disparities, she wrote.
“This new program will provide undergraduate students with the skills to understand public health challenges, implement prevention strategies, and address the underlying influences that drive health outcomes and the disparities between them,” wrote Croson.
A “tsunami” of retirements has also drained public health personnel, who have been stretched even further by the burdens and demands of meeting community health needs during the pandemic, said Ruby Nguyen, associate professor at the School of Public Health.
More than a third of public health workers who left the field or were fired at the start of the pandemic reported some form of work-related harassment while carrying out sometimes unpopular measures to fight the pandemic, according to a report. study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Additionally, recent research from the School of Public Health shows that at least 80,000 new employees are needed to meet the country’s most basic public health needs.
“There’s a lot of conversation at the table about the role of public health and public health practitioners, and many Minnesotans feel there’s too much public health influence in their lives,” Nguyen said. . “But there is a lot of quiet, successful work in this area that we risk losing if we are unable to maintain the current public health infrastructure.”
The hope is that offering the major will prepare a larger and more diverse group of students to help fill vacancies.
Nearly half of the roughly 500 U students this year with a public health minor are Indigenous or from communities of color, Nguyen said.
“We see that there is absolutely interest in the field and interest among students that we would like to recruit because of the disparities that we and they want to bridge,” she said.
What differentiates the degree program – which will admit juniors – from other undergraduate offerings is the broad, community-focused approach to teaching public health. A major in nutrition or psychology can go on to work in public health, but their training likely focuses on treating the individual, Nguyen said. A student pursuing an undergraduate degree in public health will take courses that consider both personal and systemic factors that determine good or bad health, Nguyen said.
The program will include ways to create effective public health strategies to prevent disease, promote health in local communities, and identify and eliminate health inequities.
Program graduates could go on to work in public health education, research, or data analysis roles in local health departments, nonprofit organizations, health care systems, or health care facilities. research, university leaders said.
“We had an overwhelmingly positive response to the announcement,” Nguyen said. “I hear students say, ‘I wish you had this five or 10 years ago.'”
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