When Kevin Kamis participated in a U-M SPH program in Texas, he was struck by how those who successfully settle along the U.S./Mexico border still have difficulty gaining access to healthy food. The field experience, where he surveyed individuals at food banks, reinforced his desire to pursue public health.
In March 2013, Kamis, a dual-degree student in epidemiology and health behavior and health education, was part of the Public Health Action Support Team (PHAST), a voluntary enrichment program intended to provide students with opportunities to experience public health practice in a range of field settings. It is run out of the SPH Office of Public Health Practice, founded in 2005 to "create multiple inoculating experiences for students in public health," says Matthew Boulton, its founding director and the school's senior associate dean for global health. The office exemplifies the school's commitment to giving students real-life skills in the field. PHAST is a fundamental part of that effort.
Students also get field experience in internships. Every MPH and MHSA student is required by the Council on Education for Public Health to complete one. And the vast majority of students participate, says Phyllis Meadows, associate dean for practice since 2010, who has successfully pushed to increase opportunities for internships in governmental public health. In 2014, 68 percent of SPH internships were paid by the organization where students interned and 24 percent of interns received funding from SPH or other university sources.
Boulton says at many schools of public health, students can receive their MPH without ever actually experiencing public health practice—even though practice is integral to the educational experience. So "we're trying to change that," he says. Roughly 26 percent of all SPH students head to work in international fields, not-for-profits, and the government sector—areas with a strong practice focus.
PHAST is now being viewed as a model for incorporating student field experiences into the public health curriculum, says Eden Wells, a clinical associate professor of epidemiology at U-M SPH, who has been participating in PHAST since 2008. Wells says practice at SPH works because it builds upon rigorous classroom training that students receive the first year. PHAST has become so integral to this process it is now being offered as a two-credit course, with classes in both domestic and international health practice.
Meadows says practice experiences are designed to provide students with tools they can apply to public health problems, allowing them to "transfer theory into reality." She adds that a big driver of practice programs is accreditation criteria: a requirement to engage students in active practice experiences before graduation is viewed as a core responsibility for an accredited school. There's an expectation that universities should be partners with those in the public health community, she says. The SPH practice office has spearheaded long-term partnerships, like working with the Sickle Cell Association in Grenada, as well as experiences where students are called in to respond to emergency situations following natural disasters.
Dana Thomas graduated from U-M SPH in 2005, before there was a practice office, and didn't learn about the role of local health departments while she was in school. She's now program manager for the Office of Public Health Practice and is a strong advocate for introducing students to health departments early on. Whether students pursue a practice-related field or not, the experience is important, she says, since they'll undoubtedly have to interact with the public health system at some point.
"There are great schools of public health, but having one with an Office of Public Health Practice where the goal is to provide students with exposure to applied public health, that is rare," says Jennifer Vahora, MPH '14, who participated in PHAST programs in Texas and Mississippi.
The practice office also oversees the school's annual Practice Plunge, a program that is now mandatory for all incoming students. During orientation week, students are bused to one of six different health departments in southeastern Michigan, where they learn about the department's mission and then participate in community service. Meadows says the idea holds such appeal that other public health schools, including the University of North Carolina, have adopted it.
Life after Graduation
Wells says field experiences provide students with knowledge about the infrastructure they're entering and introductions to jobs they might want to pursue. They may even meet future employers, she adds.
Former PHAST member Tiffany Huang, MPH '14, had the opportunity to present her research findings from a survey on a smoke-free ordinance she conducted in Brownsville, Texas, at last year's National Association of County and City Health Officials' annual conference. A month after she graduated, she got a job as a program analyst for health equity and community engagement with that organization. "My experience in public health and with local health departments definitely helped in getting me this job," she says.
Meadows is continuing to expand the focus of the practice office, this fall beginning exploratory work to build partnerships in St. Lucia, a place where she says there's a huge need for services. Practice will remain a priority, "interwoven into everything" students do, she says.
Julie Halpert is a writer based in Ann Arbor.