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Undergrads Flock to Popular Public Health Programs

Public health issues vary widely and impact us on a day-to-day basis. AU is one of the latest universities to offer undergraduate public health programs, including several degree programs and a minor.

What do New York City’s ban on large sugar-sweetened drinks, a recommendation that all pregnant women get the whooping cough vaccine, and fungal-tainted steroids for back pain have in common?

All three are public health issues that were at the center of major news media coverage in recent months.

As globalization brings the world's population closer together, public health's importance is only going to increase. The Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) estimated that by 2020, 250,000 new health workers will be needed.

With a promising future and seemingly endless applications, it is no wonder that public health has rapidly become one of the hottest disciplines in undergraduate education. Colleges and universities without public health graduate programs or accredited schools of public health have launched the lion's share of undergraduate public health programs during the last decade, according to the ASPH.

American University is one of the latest four-year academic institutions to join their ranks, offering a minor, a bachelor of arts degree program, a bachelor of science degree program, and a program in which students earn their bachelor’s degrees in three years. Already, the programs have proven to be popular. The university received 70 applications for the 15 slots in the first cohort for the three-year Public Health Scholars program.

“People are realizing the importance of how health impacts other sectors, which is driving the interest in public health,” said Blake Bennett, assistant director of the Public Health Scholars program.

A Broad Discipline

But public health is more than fighting the obesity epidemic, disease prevention, and making sure medicines are safe for use. It is a broad category that reaches into our daily lives in a myriad of ways. Pollution, for example, is a public health issue. So are neighborhood walkability and food and water security. Just about anything that has the potential to impact the health of any human being falls under the public health umbrella.

“Public health is interdisciplinary by nature. The causes, cures, and preventive actions necessary to eliminate diseases extend beyond biological complexity,” Bennett said. “AU’s public health programs were designed with this in mind. Our students are more likely to take courses from faculty across multiple departments.”

Quinn Hirsch, a freshman from Deerfield, IL, in AU’s Public Health Scholars program, is a living example.

“I hope to be a doctor with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans frontieres). I am currently taking upper level French courses and hope to work in developing francophone countries in communities that desperately need doctors,” Hirsch said of her career aspirations.

While some of Hirsch’s classmates are also interested in medical school, many of them are considering other avenues.

“Students have indicated desires to work as field researchers interacting with the public, to become epidemiologists, or to work on issues related to food access and security,” Bennett said.

Living, Learning Together

The Public Health Scholars program is AU’s most-recently launched three-year bachelor’s degree program. Like the Global Scholars program that preceded it and the soon-to-be launched Politics, Policy, and Law Scholars program, the Public Health Scholars program provides students with an academically rigorous education that includes numerous opportunities for experiential learning, including service-learning as well as study abroad.

“I am really looking forward to studying abroad in India next fall, as well as the capstone project that will take place our third year,” Hirsch said. “Studying abroad will be an experience unlike any other and I'm excited to learn about public health firsthand. Our capstone project is especially cool, since we will work with companies and agencies in the area to solve issues and potentially make connections for future careers in public health.”

Also like AU’s other three-year bachelor’s degree programs, the Public Health Scholars students live together in the same residence hall, on the same floor.

“This type of environment creates a supportive network for the students,” Bennett said.

“The living-learning community really drew me in, as well as the speakers who come just to talk to our program and the close relationships we have with our professors,” Hirsch said.

Looking Ahead

Bennett agrees with the ASPH's predictions for a greater need for public health workers, citing aging medicine-resistant strains of viruses and bacteria, environmental issues, and health disparities as some of the most pressing public health issues.

Fortunately, Hirsch and her classmates are eager to rise to the challenge.

“I have always wanted to be a doctor and I adore community service. I felt like studying public health was a great combination of the two,” Hirsch said. “This program is amazing, and I am having such a fantastic time living and learning with others who share my passion and have similar goals.”