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Lessons in Public Health

Hands-on learning prepares students for real-world challenges of the 21st century

By Pam Auchmutey

In Atlanta today, the average monthly food bill for a family of four is $754. That's $86 more than the $668 maximum monthly benefit a family of four receives for food stamps. Georgia now ranks sixth nationally in the number of food stamp recipients, up considerably from 15th place in 2007 before the economic recession occurred late that year.

Such statistics hit close to home, not only for Georgia families but also for public health practitioner Rachael Kane 13MPH, who manages a weekly farmer's market for the refugee, immigrant, and American-born families in Clarkston, Georgia, just a few miles east of Emory. Her student experiences in and outside of the classroom at Rollins qualified her for the role.

While taking a directed study course on food policy and security, Kane and other students limited themselves to $200 a month for food—the same amount allotted to an individual for food stamps. "You realize firsthand that cheap food is not good food," says Kane, who received a 2013 Humanitarian Award from Emory last spring.

During her first year at Rollins, she applied for a position through the school's Emory Public Health Training Center and began working with the Clarkston Community Center, where she developed a food cooperative involving local churches and organizations. That led to a summer internship in Clarkston, where she partnered with Global Growers Network, a project that teaches refugee farmers how to grow and market vegetables and fruits that thrive in the Georgia climate, and Burundian women who tend a local farm in Decatur, Georgia, to grow produce to feed their families and sell locally. She continued working in the Clarkston community during her second year of study, this time through the Rollins Earn and Learn program, which provides students with paid work experiences in public health.

This past summer, Kane and Katie Clifford, a second-year MPH student and president of the Rollins Student Government Association (RSGA), began to assess the Clarkston Community Center's food security initiatives and other local food sources. They used skills they learned at Rollins to develop a survey and collect and analyze data. "We want to know more about how effective the programs are in eradicating hunger and food insecurity," says Kane. "We also want to find ways to bring more refugees and nonrefugees together to further strengthen the community in Clarkston."

Working with communities and populations is the bedrock of public health education at Rollins. The school grew up next to the CDC, regarded by many as the mecca for applied public health. 

"Our founding fathers came from the CDC, state government, DeKalb County, and the city of Atlanta," says Kathy Miner 79MPH, associate dean for applied public health. "It was instrumental to have this nexus of people and agencies come together. Along the way, we formed new relationships with the Carter Center, CARE International, the American Cancer Society, and other partners who were attracted by what Emory and Atlanta had to offer."

A curriculum evolution

In recent years, some U.S. schools of public health have examined their curricula to rethink how to better prepare students for public health practice in the 21st century. Older schools like those at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Columbia universities evolved in a different era of public health in the early 20th century. They followed a model set forth in the Welch-Rose Report of 1915, which recommended public health education for professionals trained in medicine and hygiene. When Emory established the School of Public Health in 1990, the MPH degree had become the avenue to public health practice for professionals with baccalaureate degrees.

Since 2011, Rollins has had the highest number of MPH applicants in the nation and also ranked first in the number of MPH applicants in global health, epidemiology, and environmental health. What then makes the RSPH stand out? 

Like other schools accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health, Rollins requires its students to take core courses in five areas: behavioral sciences, biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health, and health policy. Two years ago, the RSPH added a sixth core course developed by faculty in the Hubert Department of Global Health

"The course has been a tremendous addition," says Carlos del Rio, Hubert Professor and department chair. "The most important thing is that students learn to speak the language of global health. Global health is not a discipline. It's an approach. It's a way of thinking about and working on problems. Teaching students to think that way is important in this globalized world we live in."

"The new world of public health is about cooperation and collaboration," he adds. "It requires us to think horizontally across disciplines to provide measurable outcomes to improve health."

Whether students choose to major in global health or another core area, all have multiple opportunities to gain practical experience in and outside of the classroom. As students, faculty, and alumni attest, hands-on learning is Rollins' forte. 

"You can learn about public health anywhere," says Kristin Unzicker 02MPH, director of leadership and community engaged learning. "But if you want to do public health, you come to Rollins."

Worlds of experience

After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Alek Shybut 14MPH did marketing for a small community bank and quickly learned the business world wasn't for him. "I wanted to do something more service-based and look for a way to open up my soul," he says.

His realization led him to Seattle, where he served two years with AmeriCorps as a counselor to middle school students. The experience immersed him in community service and piqued his interest in mental health and health education. While in Seattle, Shybut applied to the Peace Corps, following in the footsteps of his father, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. He also applied to the RSPH Master's International program, which prepares students for Peace Corps service.

Now a second-year student at Rollins and vice president of the RSGA, Shybut has spent numerous hours learning and working in the community. Last year, he volunteered with the Center for Pan Asian Community Services to tutor elementary school students in English. His students lived in a motel apartment complex in Clarkston. He also secured a field placement through the Emory Public Health Training Center to coordinate the Community Health Ambassador (CHA) program at Good Samaritan Health Center in West Atlanta. Founded by former Rollins student Julie Straw 12MPH, the CHA program helps teens learn to recognize and address health issues among their peers.

This past summer, Shybut completed a practicum in Orange County, California, at Grandma's House of Hope, which provides services for youth and homeless women. His practical experiences and his coursework have proved invaluable. "I need that combination of classroom training and community interaction," Shybut says. "It allows me to see the faces of those I am serving."

Lessons in the field

Epidemiology major Tori Cowger 14MPH didn't plan to make headlines during her summer practicum in American Samoa. When the island experienced a small outbreak of typhoid fever, Cowger led the epidemiology investigation since the main surveillance officer was off-island at a conference. At the time, the outbreak was limited to three cases, and island health officials urged residents to take precautions in consuming food and water to prevent more cases of the disease, especially among young children.

"It felt like I was living a real-life case study like in EPI 540," wrote Cowger in an email to her adviser, epidemiology professor John McGowan, from American Samoa. "We even made news in the local newspaper."

Cowger is one of the many Rollins students who conduct research in other countries each summer through the Global Field Experience (GFE) program. Supported by three endowments—the Eugene J. Gangarosa Scholarship Fund, the Anne E. and William A. Foege Global Health Fund, and the O.C. Hubert Fellowships in International Health—the GFE program enables students to plan, develop, and implement research projects by working with health partners in different cultures and resource settings. These experiences often form the basis of students' MPH thesis or capstone project. They can also be life changing. 

Upon graduating from Rollins, Lisa Ferland 07MPH served with the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists in Atlanta as a senior research analyst for surveillance and informatics. She now lives in Stockholm, Sweden, where she works as a public health consultant with Atlanta-based Public Health Practice LLC. She also collaborates on projects with the WHO, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the CDC, and the African Field Epidemiology Network.

For her GFE project at Rollins, Ferland conducted a case control study of dengue fever in Brunei, located on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, and made recommendations for prevention and health education to the Ministry of Health. She collaborated with health workers in a remote jungle district, without the benefit of computers and Internet access and where health workers completed questionnaires verbally since most interviewees could not read. 

"My experience in Brunei not only shaped the course of my public health career, but also taught me a lot about myself as a person," says Ferland. "Being isolated in a new country, surrounded by a foreign culture and language was instrumental in discovering myself as well as making a scientific impact in the community for future disease prevention and control."

Students as stakeholders

Each year, students, faculty, alumni, and Atlanta-area policy-makers and practitioners attend a series of lectures known as the "Mental Health Concentration." Two years ago, the concentration evolved into a certificate program that was "driven by what students want and need in addition to their traditional academic program," says Benjamin Druss, health policy professor and Rosalynn Carter Chair of Mental Health.

Last year, Rollins students formed the complementary Emory Mental Health Initiative (EMHI) to foster networking and professionalism within the field of mental health. Among its goals, EMHI promotes volunteer and service opportunities in the community, such as the National Alliance on Mental Health walk held last October at Turner Field and a local art show featuring works by people with mental illness during National Public Health Week last May. Such events call attention to "issues in mental health related to policy, global health, current events, and other areas of student interest," says EMHI cofounder Danielle Kuykendall 11N 13MPH. "We want to foster a community engaged in the mental health public health field."

Before graduating from Rollins in May, Kuykendall worked on the Health Access and Recovery Peer Project, a research study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The project was designed to empower low-income and homeless people in Atlanta to self-manage their mental illness and chronic conditions. For her thesis, Kuykendall examined the association of stigma and depression in caregivers of children with cystic fibrosis, and, in the process, learned the value of building strong partnerships.

"I found it is important to build rapport with participants, collaborators, and stakeholders to avoid obstacles and have a successful project or research study," says Kuykendall, now a study coordinator at the Brain Institute at the University of Utah.

Working collaboratively also was vital to Rhonda Tankersley 11CMPH in her efforts to build public health capacity for nutrition in Georgia. As a student in the Career Master of Public Health (CMPH) program, Rollins' distance learning initiative for working professionals, she learned methods to improve diet and nutrition services in her state health district in Northwest Georgia. In 2012, she was named director of the Dietetic Internship Program in the Georgia Department of Public Health. The program places interns in clinical and community settings and prepares them for certification as registered dieticians. 

To make the program curriculum more effective, Tankersley partnered with Dawn Comeau, assistant professor of behavioral sciences and health education, through the Emory Public Health Training Center at Rollins. Last spring, Comeau taught 10 dietetic interns how to conduct a community needs assessment (CNA), a skill she also teaches to students at Rollins. This fall, Tankersley and Comeau are using a CNA curriculum developed by Lauren Bishop 13MPH, one of Comeau's students. The new curriculum will help dietetic interns make valid decisions about population health.

"To implement a program that's meaningful and valuable, you can't make assumptions," says Tankersley. "You have to assess the needs of the community and determine what's feasible based on funding and time."

When Tankersley and other students graduate from Rollins, they are well prepared for the workforce. According to the RSPH Office of Career Services, 86% of students found jobs 11 months after graduating in 2012. This past May, Carrie Oliver 13MPH joined the workforce as special projects coordinator with the nonprofit Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center (AHEC) in Albany, Georgia, where she interned last spring. The six staff members with AHEC provide training opportunities for high school and college health professions students to build the health care workforce in the rural 38-county region.

During the summer, Oliver supervised two interns from Rollins and helped with planning and logistics for an annual program that provides primary care services for seasonal farm workers and their families. Among her projects, she is developing a Rural Health Scholars Program for high school and college students interested in health careers. She also worked with a Rollins intern to prepare a white paper on workforce shortages in mental and behavioral health professionals in South Georgia. The report is part of a five-year plan by AHEC to reduce the shortage.

In Pam Reynolds' view, Oliver brings a wealth of public health skills to the agency: organization, creativity, analytical thinking, an ability to work independently and collaboratively, knowledge about public health and the health industry, and a passion for being an agent of change.

"Carrie is a real asset to South Georgia," says Reynolds 72MN, executive director of the Southwest Georgia AHEC. "Over time, she is going to make some real inroads in helping address health issues in our region." 

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