Student and market demand led to the creation of a Master of Public Health degree, but even the faculty members who lobbied for the additions were surprised by the enrollment numbers for the first courses offered in fall 2018.
“The response was overwhelming,” said Christine Noller, an SVSU assistant professor of health sciences who coordinates the public health program and teaches some of its courses. “We were planning for 25 students originally.”
Almost 50 enrolled.
The interest was boosted substantially when Noller began working with Jim Dwyer, SVSU executive director of Alumni Relations, on relaying news of the new postgraduate offering to alumni through the university’s social media network, SVSU Connect.
“There were a few people who said they had been considering public health programs at other universities, and when they heard we were offering it here, they wanted to come back because SVSU felt like home to them,” Noller said. “We saw a lot of alumni express interest — and from very diverse backgrounds.”
The interest from individuals in a variety of professions was not a surprise to the architects of SVSU’s program. In public health, the focus is on health promotion as well as disease and injury prevention. In contrast, the medical model of care focuses on diagnosing and treating illnesses and conditions after they occur.
Public health professionals analyze and develop programs that protect the well-being of individuals, families and communities — all while using a big picture perspective.
Because of this, public health experts play key roles in emergency preparedness and response.
This may be why the public health field has experienced such growth recently, Noller said. The U.S. is placing a higher priority on enhancing its public health workforce. The national opioid epidemic, the Flint water crisis, the implementation of Affordable Care Act policies and the global impacts of climate change as well as infectious diseases have contributed to the rising demand in public health professionals.
“These aren’t just local health departments and agencies hiring these employees,” said Meghan Baruth, an associate professor of health sciences who also is teaching the new courses. “Because of all these factors, there’s a real need for this type of worker in a lot of different industries.”
While the fall 2018 semester offered introductory studies to the graduate program’s first 50 enrollees, those students will receive more specialized coursework as they advance through two years’ worth of courses. Grant writers schooled in public health are a particularly popular hire recently, Baruth said, and so courses in winter 2019 will expose students to that line of work.
And that exposure will extend beyond classroom-based studies, she said. Students will be paired with Great Lakes Bay Region-based organizations interested in applying for grants related to health, then tasked with writing those grants on behalf of the community partners.
“The organization can then submit the student’s grant proposal or take pieces of it for later,” Baruth said. “Either way, our students are gaining valuable experience in the field.”
As the master’s program advances — along with the undergraduate public health major simultaneously added to SVSU’s academic lineup in fall 2018 — Noller said she expects to implement courses concentrating on specific aspects of public health, including health education, environmental health, epidemiology and public health policy.
Other concentrations could follow in the years ahead, she said, as interest builds among SVSU alumni, business partners and other individuals who see the world’s growing need for addressing emerging public health issues.