COVID pandemic fuels rise in Texas public health majors – NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
Universities are reporting a surge in public health majors as the pandemic ushers in a new wave of aspiring students hoping to make a difference in the post-COVID-19 world.
For nearly two years now, students have been able to learn about and observe a public health crisis unfold in real time, in the real world.
“Often, students came to this program and didn’t know much about public health. They were interested in getting into health care, but they didn’t really know what the public health field entailed,” said Brandie Green, clinical assistant professor for the public health program at UT Arlington. “Now, because of the pandemic, a lot of students know more about public health and they’re interested in being part of that side of prevention.”
UTA and Texas A&M are just a few of the many institutions across the state and nation experiencing a resurgence in interest in public health careers.
For example, UTA said enrollment in its undergraduate public health program has increased by almost 40% over the past two years. The number of students enrolled in their Masters in Public Health program has tripled.
According to the Association of Public Health Schools and Programs, applications to graduate-level public health programs across the country have increased 40% during the pandemic.
“With the pandemic, we’ve been able to see concrete examples of the things we talk about in class, so that served as a good example,” said Ariel Hall, who is working on her master’s in public health at UTA. “Although it’s not the best situation we all want to be in, it really opened my eyes and kind of proved why I want to be in public health.”
Hall said she originally wanted to be a doctor and even earned a degree in biology from Texas Woman’s University. But something compelled her to start the master’s program at UTA.
“Public health is about prevention and health promotion. I was more drawn to that,” she said.
That same semester she enrolled in, the pandemic hit. However, she said she has only seen more students join her on this career path.
“It’s such a broad area that whatever your personal interests are, there’s something for you,” Hall said.
Public health can include roles such as community health workers, epidemiologists, disease response specialists, and contact tracers. Much of their work focuses on preventing and monitoring health emergencies and chronic diseases, which even average citizens are interested in during COVID-19.
Professors said students see a need to improve or make a difference in the industry because of all the issues we’ve seen during COVID-19, such as vaccine and testing disparities.
“Medicine saves one life at a time, while public health saves millions of lives at a time,” said Sarah Butler, recalling something a professor told her at the start of the degree program at the University. UTA. “It was then that I realized that was exactly what I wanted to do and what I wanted to pursue. I have always had a passion for helping others.
Butler is set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in public health and exercise science in May. She said the pandemic has helped her realize the magnitude of this career field and the changes she personally wants to make in the future of healthcare.
“Through COVID-19, we’ve seen how important public health professionals are and what they do,” she said. “They promote, they protect, they take care of the public. So I’m just happy to have the opportunity to be on the front line very soon.”
EDUCATE THE PUBLIC
These teachable moments during the pandemic have been pivotal.
“One of the most important things we can do in public health is to focus on health communication. We’ve seen throughout this pandemic that there’s a lot of misinformation that has resulted in people not getting vaccines or not getting treatment,” Green said. “It’s important to have this health education based on the population we serve and to change the communication to be specific to each population group we are looking at.”
Future healthcare workers are finding teachable moments during the pandemic, helping to highlight issues plaguing DFW such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, especially in diverse communities.
Professor Green actually teaches a communication course to help students understand how to communicate important health information to the public, especially through social media like TikTok and YouTube.
“One of the things we’ve learned and done is to teach through TikTok. For some of our younger generation, we could use social media a lot more to get those points across,” she said. “Learning to do a breast exam, or sex and chronic disease education through a TikTok is something that students are taught to do.Those things that you think are not as effective, that’s pretty much what the population learn at this point.
Students learn the importance of educating the public not only about COVID-19, but other issues plaguing DFW such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, especially in various communities.
Green said one of the biggest issues in the region among women of color is maternal mortality.
“Maternal mortality is the death of a mother after childbirth, usually up to a year after childbirth,” Green said. “We have women who are experiencing a number of different complications following childbirth. A lot of them could be educated about this – they can look for signs and symptoms on where they can be treated. But because of this lack of education, we see a high number of women dying of maternal mortality.
It’s something Hall hopes to address in her future career, as her master’s degree focuses on urban health.
“I want to focus on people who are like me, who have had experiences like me,” she said. “Really, help them and everyone else achieve health equity and have access to health care and healthy lifestyles.”
Green said faculty are trained to help students find their areas of passion in public health.
“Especially for students of color, they are looking for someone who will provide them with more representation. Someone who can give them feedback on what’s happening within their own community,” Green said. “Being able to be that voice and see what’s happening within that community, those are some of the things we can do to help people of color that I’m passionate about doing.”
The realm of public health also encompasses food insecurities, which have been another local issue aggravated by the pandemic.
There are many food deserts in North Texas where families don’t have access to healthy fruits and vegetables near their homes.
“A lot of residents shop at dollar stores — that’s where they get all their food because that’s what’s available to them,” Green said. “They’re eating processed foods or foods that aren’t healthy for them. . That can lead to some of these chronic diseases that we’re talking about.”
UTA students work on projects addressing food insecurity, actively conducting food surveys to help nonprofits like the Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration improve access to healthy groceries.
Coming this semester, students will also be developing a YouTube page showing families how to cook for a family of four for $20 or less.
“They’ll come up with recipes and put them on a YouTube channel to help economically disadvantaged families living in a food desert learn how to be healthier on a budget,” Green said.
With more students pursuing careers in public health, Green said there will be even more hands-on learning opportunities that will benefit North Texas communities.
“A lot of times it’s nonprofits or programs like UTA that help bridge that gap and show what some of the needs are within communities,” Green said. “We’re happy to help organizations find those needs so we can provide solutions.”