Students, faculty push for new public health department

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Author: Drew Jaffe|Sarah Corsa

Students and faculty are pushing for the creation of a public health department. A new internship-based practicum, new classes and a proposed public health minor are all examples of the expanding offerings in this field of study at Occidental.

The process of developing the new department began in 2011 when Kaiser Permanente awarded the college a planning grant, according to the Community Health Engagement (CHE) program website. The college used the grant to assess student interest in public health and determine what resources would be most effective to prepare students for post-graduation work. The CHE program was established in order to facilitate the creation of new classes and to draft a proposal for the interdisciplinary minor. A Planning Advisory Group, drawing from departments ranging from philosophy to Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP), came together to interview students and discuss potential programs. To address students’ desire for public health internships, the CHE created UEP 307: Public Health Practicum, a class that places students at internships with community health organizations.

“What a lot of students were asking for was not only more speakers on campus [and] a better public health adviser … but also a public health minor and a set of public health classes and more internship opportunities, which is where this public health practicum came out of,” UEP major Jessica Welty (senior) said. Welty has worked with the UEP department and the CCBL since the project’s conception and now facilitates weekly reflection sessions with the interns in the practicum class. Kaiser awarded the college another grant to fully fund the creation of the 12-student class.

“I think it’s very important, that distinction that a foundation sees the worthiness of what we found out from the planning grant to develop an additional class,” UEP professor and program manager Heng Lam Foong said.

The students’ work in the practicum goes beyond basic medical services for patients. Student responsibilities vary by location, but include connecting clients to housing and food services and educating them on overall healthy lifestyle habits. In addition to working in the field eight hours per week, students also attend weekly lectures and reflection sessions.

Urban and Environmental Policy major Clara Wheatley-Schaller (senior) works at the Cancer Legal Resource Center (CLRC), a subsection of the Disability Rights Legal Center. The center works with cancer patients on legal issues regarding their employers, insurance companies and government programs. Wheatley-Schaller helps patients with their various needs over the phone. Although different from in-person interaction, Wheatley-Schaller says the experience was beneficial.

“It’s a good way to see how the policies you learn about apply on an individual level: how healthcare affects individuals, how disability benefits affect individuals,” Wheatley-Schaller said.

Economics major Maggie Nelson (junior) also engages in a non-clinical aspect of public health. She currently interns at the Community Health Alliance of Pasadena (CHAP) clinic in case management, helping patients find various social, financial and legal resources once they have consulted a doctor.

Prior to enrolling in the practicum, Nelson traveled to South Africa to study community health and social policy with the School of International Training (SIT). She she explained that with the introduction of the practicum, she is now able to explore her longtime interest in public health while at Occidental.

“I’ve always been interested in public health, but Oxy never had an outlet for it,” Nelson said. Her situation reflects a common reality among those interested in public health at Occidental. Until now, the options for students interested in public health have been scattered throughout different departments. The new practicum now offers students a chance to channel their interests and determine if this field is something they would like to continue to pursue after graduation.

“I wanted to be a physical therapist, but after I took [UEP 305: Intro to Public Health], I felt that public health was more what I was really interested in,” kinesiology major Chelsa Greene (senior) said. Her internship took place at Foothill Unity Center, a food pantry that has expanded to include health services and case management. Greene’s duties included updating the resource guide and leading a walking group throughout the community.

Faculty added their praise of the practicum and the public health program to students’ positive feedback. History professor Sharla Fett, who serves on the Planning Advisory Group reviewing the prospective minor, believes the program fits well within the liberal arts ideals.

“I am very inspired by what students are doing in public health, it just hasn’t been given a title,” Fett said. “And it matches well with the liberal arts program because there are so many different ways to be engaged in public health.”

A proposal for the minor was submitted in Oct. 2012 and is waiting for review by the Academic Planning Committee.

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