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Current and future Blugolds show interest in new public health major

| Judy Berthiaume

Ever since he took an environmental science class early in his college career, Connor Barnes has been thinking about how he might combine his interest in the natural world with his passion for helping people.

Turns out, UW-Eau Claire’s new public health major — available for the first time in fall 2020 — is exactly what he had in mind.

“I see public health as one of the most important aspects of our society,” says Barnes, a senior from Eau Claire. “With my passion for helping people and for the environment, I feel a calling for public health.”

While UW-Eau Claire has offered a public health minor for several years, the time is right to also offer a public health major, says Dr. Karen Mumford, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Watershed Institute.

There is a growing demand for public health experts to study and solve the many problems threatening the health and well-being of populations around the world, including the COVID-19 crisis, Mumford says.

“It’s a powerful time to offer this new major given the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and everything else that is happening in the world right now,” Mumford says. “Our graduates will have the knowledge and experiences they need to contribute to and thrive in the public health field.”

UW-Eau Claire’s public health major, on its own or combined with another academic program, will be a great fit for students who want to improve the health and safety of populations and communities close to home or in other parts of the world, Mumford says.

Public health professionals hold a variety of positions, including as epidemiologists, community health workers, health educators, health care social workers and environmental specialists.

Given the varied roles within the public health field, Mumford expects interest in the new major to be high among current and future students. Already, she says, some current students — like Barnes — are changing their majors to public health or adding it as a second major.

UW-Eau Claire’s new public health major

Core courses in the new major will focus on public health principles and practices, epidemiology, health policy and demography. Students then can select courses from academic departments across campus to gain additional expertise or to connect to other fields of interest.

At the end of their program, students will complete a capstone experience, such as an internship, research or public health education and outreach campaigns, giving them real-world experiences before going on to graduate school or into the workplace.

UW-Eau Claire’s public health major is designed in a way that it pairs well with many of the university’s other majors, such as social work, mathematics, sociology or anything in the sciences.

So, students can major in just public health or pursue it along with a second major that interests them, Mumford says, noting that skills in everything from business to computer science to education and medicine are assets when working in public health.

UW-Eau Claire graduate Madigan Knuth is midway through a public health graduate program.

UW-Eau Claire graduate Madigan Knuth is midway through a public health graduate program.

Madigan Knuth, a 2019 graduate who had majors in psychology and French and a minor in public health, says she is glad that her alma mater has added the major because the need for more public health professionals is only going to grow.

The COVID-19 global pandemic highlights the critical role public health plays in the world today, as well as the need for more people to work in preventative health, says Knuth, who is pursuing a master of public health degree in maternal and child health at the University of Minnesota.

“Public health professionals are coming up with strategies to solve problems such as chronic disease, social injustices, environmental health, and maternal and infant mortality,” Knuth says. “These issues will not go away, so we need more people to prevent, promote and protect our world.”

Aimee Gillespie is a political science graduate who now is pursuing a career in public health.

Aimee Gillespie is a political science graduate who now is pursuing a career in public health.

Aimee Gillespie, a 2019 UW-Eau Claire graduate who had a political science major and public health minor, agrees, noting that the focus within public health is on prevention rather than constantly responding to illness and crisis situations.

“To address why illness happens, it is important to understand the social determinants of health, which are things a person is often born into, such as socioeconomic status, neighborhoods, physical environments and family trauma, just to name a few,” Gillespie says. “All of these things influence a person’s health outcomes throughout a lifetime.

“The field of public health constantly tries to improve these systems to improve the health and well-being for vulnerable, traditionally underserved populations.”

Since many Blugolds are passionate about social justice issues, the new major is a great fit for UW-Eau Claire, Gillespie says.

“The public health program can help students interested in social justice to form a comprehensive, data-oriented perspective on a number of relevant issues, including chronic illness, water and air quality, climate change, sexual health, global pandemics and police brutality,” Gillespie says.

Building on a strong foundation

While the major is new, Barnes, Knuth and Gillespie all say UW-Eau Claire already has a strong foundation in place for its public health program thanks to engaged faculty, innovative courses and the extraordinary outside-the-classroom opportunities and experiences it offers students.

For example, Barnes says the two years he spent collaborating on research with Dr. Crispin Pierce, a professor in the Watershed Institute, taught him about research but also helped him build many other skills that will be useful in his public health major and future career.

“We observed particulate matter near frac sand mining sites,” says Barnes of the research. “But the research project also helped me learn how to interact with community members, analyze data and present data to crowds.”

Those all are skills that will help him be successful in his future career, says Barnes, who hopes to someday work in environmental coordination and consulting within the field of public health.

Student organizations, including the Student National Environmental Health Association, also taught him about career opportunities, networking and coordination, he says.

“UWEC has done a wonderful job of making me feel like I have a community behind me,” Barnes says. “It’s also empowered me to make some positive changes for the planet and for sentient beings. I'm very grateful for all of my experiences here.”

Gillespie is completing a service term with the National Health Corps, an AmeriCorps program located in Pennsylvania, and soon will return to the Chippewa Valley to serve the Wisconsin Health Corps, where she will work at the Eau Claire City-County Health Department as a community health liaison.

A mix of experiences in and out of her UW-Eau Claire classes helped put her on her current path, says Gillespie, noting that in fall 2021 she plans to begin graduate school to study public policy.

Her UW-Eau Claire political science classes helped her understand the nation’s history and the political attitudes that led to policy decisions that influence the nation’s health today, while several internships showed her how she can use both her political science and public health backgrounds in her career, Gillespie says.

She credits her political science professors with encouraging her interest in public health, allowing her to tailor her papers, projects and presentations to health-related topics, Gillespie says.

“Study abroad and immersion programs helped me to see other parts of the world and get to know different demographics of people, which also is important in public health,” Gillespie says.

Knuth also found supportive faculty in the psychology department, mentors who encouraged her to focus on her public health interests through research, immersion experiences, campus-community programs and independent study.

“They strongly encouraged and supported my passion for this path,” Knuth says.

Students considering careers in public health should seek out these kinds of varied experiences, while also finding opportunities to learn about diverse populations, Gillespie says.

“Read books, listen to podcasts and seek perspectives from people who don’t look like you, and who don’t come from the same geographical area that you do,” Gillespie says. “Every human possesses a set of implicit biases, and the sooner you work to understand your own, the sooner you can connect with the populations you are serving and pursue social justice and health equity.”

Campus resources

For more information about UW-Eau Claire’s new public health major, contact Dr. Karen Mumford at mumforkg@uwec.edu.

More information also is available about the new public health major on UW-Eau Claire’s website.

Top photo caption: Current and future Blugolds already are showing interest in UW-Eau Claire’s new public health major, available for the first time this fall.