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Social Sciences

Creating a Culture of Health

By Patty Housman

culture of health

American University’s new Department of Health Studies (DHS) was born last fall within the College of Arts and Sciences to promote scholarship in a field that touches every school in the university. 

Improving health—on campus, in the District of Columbia, across the United States, and around the world—is one of the most important issues of our time. Aging populations, global pandemics, increasing environmental degradation, and a rise in childhood obesity are just some of the many global health challenges, and they are all addressed in the new collaboration at AU. Its overarching goal is training future leaders in effective ways to improve health and reduce health disparities. 

New and Autonomous 

Until this academic year, the Department of Health Studies and School of Education were part of the same unit—the School of Education, Teaching, and Health. The growth of their respective programs led the university to elevate them into autonomous units. 

Already, DHS has more than 430 students enrolled in its undergraduate and graduate programs, earning degrees in health promotion management, public health, and nutrition education. 

Students can also enter a three-year Public Health Scholars Program, or take part in the department's newest program, an online master’s degree in nutrition education that is already enrolling nearly 100 students a year. 

Health, Everywhere 

Health is a core component of many other departments in the College—including psychology, sociology, math and statistics, biology, environmental science, and history. In addition, there are health-related majors and courses in the other schools at AU. 

In the College of Arts and Sciences, health studies students may tailor electives from a wide range of disciplines—classes include the history of medicine, environmental health, infectious diseases, and the psychology of health and well-being. Students in statistics help create mathematical models for disease epidemiology. Biology students conduct cell biology research that is published in peer-reviewed cancer journals. Neuroscience students are working with faculty to explore how chemicals in the brain may influence things like addiction and inflammation. 

“DHS has the unique opportunity to teach and conduct collaborative research across all the boundaries and all the units within the whole university,” said Professor Stacey Snelling, chair of the new department. 

A Culture of Health at AU 

Of course, good health begins at home—which, for thousands of students, faculty and staff, is the AU campus. Snelling points out that efforts aimed at better health can be seen every- where—in the fitness center, the student dining hall, the faculty-staff wellness program, on its green walking paths, and all over the tobacco-and smoke-free campus. “We are working across units—and with the offices of Human Resources and Campus Life—to create a culture of health for everyone, so that students, faculty, and staff can reach their full potential. We want our students to become models for making good and healthy choices.” 

Among higher education institutions, AU is a national leader in its commitment to the mental and physical health of its students. AU College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Starr believes it is essential for the university to look critically at its support system. “Our student body is changing dramatically, and our infrastructure must do the same if we are to ensure academic success and well-being for all of our students,” he said. 

The Future 

As DHS grows, so does its influence. On campus, it continues to build a culture of health. Beyond, it works to improve the lives of people across the world—through research, community service, and training the next generation of leaders in health and health promotion. 

“Health is a field that touches every member of our community, as well as the world around us,” says Snelling. “Our faculty members are pioneers in innovative research. Our students, and the entire AU community, stand to gain so much from the work being done here.”