College joins peer institutions, approves public health concentration

Public health officially became a new concentration after a faculty meeting vote on Dec. 12. Seventy-four faculty members voted in favor of this change, while 18 voted against it and four abstained. The change marks the success of persistent work beginning in 2007 by a group of 15 faculty members who sought “to capitalize on the broad cross-disciplinary strengths of our existing course offerings, while providing a rigorous framework for self-motivated academic and experiential exploration,” according to Lois Banta, associate professor of biology and chair of the Public Health Advisory Committee.

The concentration will help current students better understand public health. “[This] is a big step towards legitimizing the field, giving it some exposure, and really allowing students to broaden their conception of [public] health to encompass something more than medicine,” Kelsey Gaetjens ’13, who chose to pursue a contract major in public health, said.

Concentrators will take an introductory course, a required statistics course, three electives from at least two departments, a fieldwork or experiential component and a capstone course. The capstone course will culminate in students forming a team to identify a concern within the discipline of public health and propose a way to address it. This capstone course is modeled on similar projects in the environmental studies and political economy disciplines. The capstone course is the only new course that will be added to the catalog in response to the creation of the concentration. No new faculty will be hired.

Concentrators will be admitted to the program based on a written proposal meant “to encourage the student to consider concretely how he or she will engage with socio-cultural, behavioral, policy and/or biomedical aspects of population health,” according to the ratified proposal. The proposal, prepared with guidance from a member of the advisory committee, will be due when a student decides to declare the concentration. Students will update their proposals in the spring of their junior year. In their senior year, concentrators enrolled in the capstone course will draw upon their portfolios, which will be comprised of essays written for classes within the concentration.

According to Banta, the concentration will probably draw between five and 14 concentrators per year. There may be some students who  were originally following the global health track in international studies who now can choose to concentrate in public health.

In creating new concentrations and majors, the College is careful to avoid programs that seem pre-professional. According to Banta, the interdisciplinary nature of the program will avoid such concerns. “For programs that admit students directly after undergraduate education, there is no expectation of a major or minor in public health and no specific required course-work, other than some background in statistics for some programs,” Banta said. “Instead, the proposed area of concentration would formalize an intellectually cohesive, yet multi- or interdisciplinary, set of educational experiences and in fact, would do so in a way that requires the student to think deliberately and repeatedly about how different strands of his or her education inform each other. Consciously weaving those strands together is an integral part of the liberal arts experience.”

The College joins peer institutions such as Dartmouth, Middlebury, Haverford, Swarthmore and Bates in creating a program in the area of public health. According to a survey by student Utarra Partap ’13, 42 percent of U.S. News & World Report’s top 50 liberal arts colleges offered public health in some capacity in the 2009-10 academic year.

“The broadly interdisciplinary, yet rigorous, structure of the [concentration] we propose will prepare our students for a radically different health-care provision landscape by inculcating critical and creative thinking, problem solving, teamwork, inquiry and analytical skills, ethical reasoning, quantitative and information literacy, written and oral communication of complex ideas and intercultural knowledge,” Banta said.

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