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School & Program Updates

Soaring to New Heights at UIC: New Undergraduate Program Ranked 12th in the Nation

Since its inception in 2012, the Bachelor of Arts in Public Health (BA) program at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health has allowed a new generation of students to think critically about health. Students in the program, like Mr. Faruq Olamiji Sarumi, who served on the school’s Undergraduate Student Advisory Board, report gaining a broader perspective in their approach to health through hands-on experiences within Chicago’s diverse communities. Many students even note that their new understandings benefit their own lives as well. “The program has impacted my life on a personal level by granting me the opportunity to reflect on my own value system and decisions,” said Mr. Sarumi. “My broader sense of thinking, thanks to the program, has enhanced my personal relationships with others. It has provided me with the knowledge and skill set to operate among diverse groups and populations within our society.”

[Photo: Dr. Karin Opacich, left, with the winners of the UIC SPH undergraduate research day poster competition.]

Dr. Karin J. Opacich, assistant dean for undergraduate programs and clinical associate professor of health policy & administration, led the development of the BA program and is thrilled by its recent ranking as 12th in the U.S. by College Choice, a company which specializes in college and university rankings and resources.

Dr. Opacich was asked to help create the baccalaureate program in public health when the school’s former Dean, Dr. Paul Brandt-Rauf, responded favorably to a consensus report from the Institute of Medicine (2003), which recognized the need for accessible public health education to yield an “educated citizenry” able to understand the many factors that shape the health of populations. That report stimulated a national surge in new undergraduate public health programs. She was hired in 2009 and began working alongside Dr. Sylvia Furner, associate professor emerita,  to garner support and develop the baccalaureate degree in public health. While UIC SPH had been educating students at the master’s and doctoral levels for nearly 40 years, this was the first time it embarked on educating students at the undergraduate level.

To begin the process of developing this new curriculum, an invitation was sent to faculty in public health with an interest in undergraduate education to “please come to the table,” Dr. Opacich said. Once the curricular infrastructure started to emerge, input was solicited from colleges and departments across the University of Illinois at Chicago whose interests meshed with public health. Early in the process, the undergraduate degree development committee established that they did not want to create a “simplified version” of the school’s master of public health (MPH) program. “We identified the philosophical foundation of what we wanted to be, which is grounded in liberal arts,” Dr. Opacich explained.

The BA program is committed to the principles of liberal education and the educational philosophy includes “confluent education” incorporating the emotional, social, and cognitive understandings of its students. The curriculum entails “action learning,” and students are expected to be active agents in the production of their own learning. During the two-year program of study, students are engaged in communities and are directly involved in an array of projects focusing on everything from revitalizing brownfields, to eye health in Chicago Public Schools, to issues surrounding homelessness, to occupational safety for at risk workers.

The program graduated its fourth class on May 5, adding another 40 individuals to its alumni total of 102. The program draws an array of students with amazingly diverse cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some are first generation college students, while still others represent first generations of families in the United States. Most students have to work while attending college and have lived or still live in the communities where quality public health and access to healthcare is a concern.

According to Dr. Opacich, students in the program are even more diverse than the campus as a whole, which is considered one of the most diverse universities in the nation. “The beauty of the undergrad program …. when facing students, it is like facing the league of nations,” Dr. Opacich said. “There is amazing diversity here. A good part of (the undergrad program) is learning to talk to each other, learning to appreciate different realities, learning to be culturally literate in how they interact with each other.” When students finish the program, they emerge with an informed understanding of public health and the role it plays in achieving health equity and social justice.

Students matriculate into the program in their junior year, after having earned 60 hours of general education credits, nine of which are in public health. They proceed through the major as a cohort in another 35 hours of core public health coursework. While not all graduates will pursue higher degrees or work in the public health field directly, all will have gained an education to better serve in their chosen fields. “The point of this program is to produce an educated citizenry,” Dr. Opacich said, describing students of public health as health “crusaders” and people “with a heart for social justice.”

For some undergraduate students, the baccalaureate degree in public health will be an end point while, for others, it will provide the academic basis for the pursuit of a professional graduate degree in public health, medicine, nursing, or other fields related to public health. Ms. Sharon Mwale was one of just nine students in the first graduating class. Once considering a career in medicine, she said the bachelor’s in public health courses taught her to look at life and her career more broadly. “UIC SPH introduced me to healthcare as a daily effort and not episodic as it is approached in medicine,” said Ms. Mwale. “This mindset has impacted both my personal and professional life. Personally, I make more deliberate choices in my daily life regarding my physical and mental health. Professionally, I think the greatest lesson I learned was social determinants of health. This has greatly informed my thinking on the job on a daily basis and my understanding of how one’s background and environment may influence an individual’s trajectory.” Ms. Mwale went on to complete a master’s in public health at the Yale School of Public Health last spring. Today she works as a program manager for Health Venture in Connecticut.

Ms. Queena Luu said the program has “exposed” her to various interventions, initiatives, and projects present in Chicago’s many neighborhoods where she was raised. “It is one thing to be learning about theories, like the ecological model and the case studies, but (it is another thing) to be able to apply that knowledge to develop skills in the field,” Ms. Luu said. “I’ve worked on a health curriculum project at West Humboldt Park, and I was able to draw from health communication strategy knowledge from my health literacy class. I’ve also worked on a museum exhibit project that deals with urban health during the summer.” Ms. Luu said she plans on earning a master’s degree in public health and becoming a physician in primary care.

Ms. Ada Tong was a pre-med/biology student before discovering public health. She appreciated the small class sizes and was motivated by her professors who were supportive of the passions and interest of each student. “UIC gave me the tools to explore more careers outside of the traditional health field,” Ms. Tong said. “Through my research internship with Dr. Julie Darnell, I gained first-hand knowledge of the progression and growth of free health care clinics across the United States. Public health is not confined to a clinical or administrative setting; it can be applied to all areas of life. I am inspired to use my public health knowledge to understand all external factors and root causes.”

Through the program Ms. Tong has developed strong, supportive friendships that also have benefitted her professionally. As a constituent services coordinator for Illinois 2nd District State Representative Ms. Theresa Mah, Ms. Tong said she was planning a health fair and was excited she could reach out to a fellow student who worked at the American Diabetes Foundation who agreed to speak at the fair. “I firmly believe that although medicine is important, public health is at the frontline and prevention is key for healthy communities,” she said.

Mr. Tamah Kamlem grew up in the poor neighborhood of Douala in the country of Cameroon located in central Africa. Mr. Kamlem, the son and grandson of community health workers, graduated Suma Cum Laude with his bachelor’s in public health. He was the first recipient of The Promise Award, bestowed upon one student who is perceived by the faculty to show outstanding potential to contribute to the health of the public as exemplified by academic performance, community engagement, and leadership. He is currently living in Washington, D.C. where he interns at the World Bank Group. Growing up the way he did taught him early on “the importance of health in the lives of individuals and communities.”

Mr. Kamlem, who has lived in Europe and the United States and speaks five languages fluently, said his interests reside in policy making in the area of health economics with a focus on the “burden of noncommunicable diseases and their economic impact.” He said Dr. Opacich and Ms. Melissa Tag, associate director of undergraduate operations, were major influences over his choice to pursue a degree in public health. He appreciates that both took a “genuine interest” in his academic development.

“The program itself, with its emphasis on the acquisition of critical thinking skills and the built-in field experiences, stands out in comparison to curricula at other universities,” Mr. Kamlem said. While at UIC, he was mentored by professors who “pushed” him to be successful in and outside the classroom. His studies and interactions led him to the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University to pursue an MPH in Global Health Policy. “I still rely on lessons, advice, and insight gained as an undergraduate,” Mr. Kamlem said, adding that he currently works at John Snow Inc. on a USAID-funded project on health management information systems. “The goal is to improve child health indicators in 26 countries across three continents.”

Mr. Steven Chrzas is enrolled in UIC SPH’s master’s program in Health Policy & Administration. He said public health for him has become a way of life. “I joke that public health is a lifestyle for me because it’s so pervasive in my daily life. Not only do I have my public health lens influencing my perspective daily, but I am constantly involved with events at the school and with classmates. There is always something going on at SPH, and there are a plethora of social groups and gatherings to be a part of. For example, my cohort in the MPH program tries to plan a dinner once a month which we’ve coined SPH Eats.”

Mr. Chrzas, who may pursue work in governmental public health, said it has been his interactions with the school’s “diverse” and “passionate” faculty members, as well as his fellow students, that have molded his “professional character.” He added the school also has been helpful in preparing him to be a strong competitor in the job market after graduation. But his passion for public health has been most influenced by Dr. Karen Peters. Dr. Peters taught the first pre-requisite course he took. At the time, he said, he was majoring in biological sciences but was unsure of his path. He said that course and Dr. Peters “got me completely hooked on the ideals and practice of public health. I remember thinking it was so cool that not only was Dr. Peters so knowledgeable on global health, but she was able to integrate her fieldwork into how she taught the course. Dr. Peter’s passion for her work really shone in that class, and this is something that I witnessed across the undergraduate program.”

Mr. Sarumi, who described himself as a student and a social activist, said the program experience has inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in public health in maternal and child health and global health. “The social conditions of a marginalized population within the city exemplifies the importance of public health intervention in fighting barriers of health equity,” said Mr. Sarumi, who hopes to earn a doctoral degree and work as a social activist addressing gender and racial issues. Among several ambitious plans for his future inspired in part by the UIC SPH undergraduate experience, he wants to be involved in work that empowers women of color. “UIC SPH taught me to advocate for health equity as an essential human right,” he said.

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