In the Public Good
Professor Julie Bass finds inspiration in the students who major in public health.
By Laura Billings Coleman
In the spring of 2009, St. Catherine University faculty voted to approve a new undergraduate degree in public health. By the following day, students were already knocking on Professor Julie Bass's office door, clamoring to know how soon they could sign up for the major.
A professor of occupational science and occupational therapy, Bass spearheaded the effort to create a five-core-course framework that prepares St. Kate's students for careers in community health, public policy and the medical professions.
Now in its third full year as a baccalaureate offering, the public health major has attracted more than 80 students, about three-quarters of whom were raised in families of recent immigrants or are from foreign countries. "Many of them have seen the health disparities in their own communities," says Bass. "They've experienced barriers to access, and they want to be part of the solution."
Public health has historically been a graduate-level degree. Why make it available to undergraduates now?
About five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control became concerned that the United States did not have "an informed citizenry in public health," and began asking why, for instance, parents were choosing not to have their children immunized. Few colleges or universities were offering any courses in public health, or these courses were offered only at the graduate level.
At the same time, St. Kate's was exploring the possibility of creating more undergraduate health degrees that could provide foundational knowledge of health and address health disparities in communities of color. We were one of the first 30 schools to receive a curriculum development grant to create three public health courses. Students kept asking, "When are you going to develop a major?" The timing seemed right.
Is the current debate about healthcare reform a driver for students who are pursuing this degree?
Their initial interest tends to flow from a social justice perspective, which fits with the St. Kate's mission. Also, we have a growing number of Hmong students and students from East Africa. They're interested in helping our healthcare system shift from an acute model — in which we treat people only when they're sick — to a community model, where we teach people how to prevent illnesses and take charge of their own health.
What do your public health students want to do after they graduate?
They can take a number of different paths. As a double major, public health pairs well with pre-med or pre-pharmacy for students who are immersed in science but want some health-related coursework. Other students see themselves working as a cultural bridge between their own communities and the typically Western healthcare system.
And finally, our collaboration with the University of St. Thomas allows our students to pursue a "health educator" credential on their campus while taking public health courses on our campus.
An internship is one of the five core courses in this major. Why is that important?
An intern experience takes students out into the real world. It gives them a chance to see what skills they'll need in the workplace. It also lets employers know that our program exists — which is important in this tight economy.
What lessons do you hope your students take away from their public health training?
We teach our students to lead in a way that fits who they are, to be servant leaders and to direct their passion for various issues toward actually making a difference. The education of women can be one of the most important things a community can do to improve the health outcomes of everyone. At St. Kate's, students learn that, while passion is important, knowledge is the key to developing a good argument. You have to move beyond passion to influence policy and viewpoints.