Big changes in Western's Public Health program mean more real-world opportunities for students

by Kaleigh Carroll
Office of University Communications intern

Amidst the shifting health mandates and regulations of the pandemic last year, Western’s Public Health Program has updated its curriculum to better focus on the practical needs of students seeking to enter the healthcare field. 

Combining courses, creating equitable application requirements and streamlining the course sequences are some of the alterations. 

Change isn’t a new concept for the program. Just last year, the program changed its name from Community Health to Public Health, because of alumni feedback, professor and program coordinator Ying Li said.

“Even though alumni graduated from the community health program, they would tell people it was ‘public health’ because people barely knew what community health was,” Li said. 

When reflecting on the myriad of changes to the program, Li said she was most proud of the newly flexible science requirements and additional concentrations available to students. 

While students are still required to take fundamental courses like BIO 348, 349 and CHEM 161, other science classes have become elective options. 

“We let students choose what courses will serve them best. At the same time, we still kept the rigor of our curriculum … because we believe in having that scientific foundation,” Li said. 

The new concentrations -- community and behavioral health and population and global health -- further reflect that desire to let students choose their own path. While students largely take the same courses regardless of their concentration, they branch off in their final quarters to concentration-specific classes.  Those studying community and behavioral health focus on health education as well as program design while those in the population and global health study epidemiology and infectious diseases. 

Though there aren’t any further concentrations planned, Li said this approach leaves room for future development. 

“We can keep adding concentrations if we see a need from students or the community,” she said.

Community input and interaction isn’t just a part of the concentration process, it’s also at the forefront of the program’s approach to learning.

“When I was a student, we talked about those concepts and read textbooks, but I did not have a chance to interact with community members. Now, students don’t just learn from books, they have to do work in the community,” Li said. 

For Kess Nelson, a fourth-year student in the Public Health Program, that meant putting her skills to work at Island Hospital in Anacortes. As an intern with their Community Education Department, she moderates health screenings, teaches classes, compiles informational pamphlets on nutrition and creates social media posts. 

“It was a perfect fit. It’s given me a holistic idea of what healthcare and helping people looks like … It’s also taught me a lot about health equity,” Nelson said.

In the past, other students have created marketing campaigns for public health initiatives and partnered with health departments to get hands-on training. In just the last eight years, students in the public health program have done 90,000 hours of community service, according to the Public Health program course page.

This approach allows students to ‘take charge,’ so they use both their classroom and real-world skills when entering the professional world, Li said. 

Upon graduation, the program prepares students for careers ranging from healthcare educator to epidemiologist. Alumni of the program have gone on to work at Seattle Children’s Hospital, the Whatcom Council on Aging and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. 

Despite the pandemic putting a stop to in-person learning for the past academic year, the program and its partners have found ways to adapt; with a strong and involved alumni network, Li said students didn’t suffer from a lack of internship and networking opportunities.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to adapt to the unexpected … they see how people adapt and change their work for a situation like a pandemic,” Li said. 

More information about the public health program can be found on its website.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021 - 9:41am
A Public health student discusses the research on her poster during a poster session with alumni.

Fourth-year public health students present their social marketing campaigns to their professors and peers in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Ying Li)