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In the shadow of COVID-19, interest in public health studies is climbing in North Texas and beyond

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked student interest in the University of Texas at Arlington’s public health program

Public health Senior Sarah A. Butler
Public health senior Sarah A. Butler (left), public health master’s student Ariel Hall (center), and public health junior Kim Le pictured at the University of Texas at Arlington on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022 in Arlington, Texas.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

By Marin Wolf

When Ariel Hall started her undergraduate degree in biology, she set her sights on becoming a doctor. She knew she wanted to help people, and a job in medicine could guarantee the opportunity to do just that.

Toward the end of her college career, however, Hall realized her passions lay beyond treating people recovering from illness. She wanted to learn how other factors affected people’s wellbeing. In January 2020, she enrolled in the graduate certificate of public health program at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The decision to explore the field of public health was a relatively easy one for Hall. Explaining it to her family was more difficult – at least until the pandemic hit just months after she enrolled at UTA.

“When I told my family that that’s what I wanted to pursue for my education, they didn’t really understand what [public health] was,” she said. “But I think this pandemic has allowed us to see that everything is affected by public health.”

Public health practitioners, from community health workers to epidemiologists, tend to work behind the scenes. Occasionally, when disaster strikes, they’re seen on the front lines, providing shelter, food and medicine to vulnerable populations, but most of their work is focused on preventing and monitoring health emergencies.

It wasn’t until the spread of the coronavirus that public health experts became household names.

Interest in public health programs jumped significantly in the years following the onset of COVID-19, both nationally and in Texas. Enrollment in UTA’s undergraduate public health program, which launched in 2017, increased nearly 40% in the last two years. The size of the university’s Master’s of Public Health program, which started in 2019, tripled from 12 students to 37.

The Texas A&M University School of Public Health reported a 15% increase in bachelor’s admissions and a 26% increase in master’s admissions in the last two years.

That trend is mirrored across the U.S. Between March 2020 and March 2021, applications to graduate-level public health programs grew by 40%, from 17,353 to 24,176, according to data from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, which represents accredited public health programs.

Brandie Green, a clinical assistant professor of public health at UTA, has watched the program grow for years. The pandemic, she said, kick-started an interest in health fields beyond medicine and nursing.

“Everyone now knows what public health is, and people want to go into the health care field,” she said. “They realize that they can get on the prevention side instead of the treatment side and really make a difference in marginalized populations.”

That was certainly true for Kim Le, a UTA junior majoring in public health. She first got involved with public health through her job at the university’s health center, where she conducted contact tracing for COVID-19 patients. Like Hall, she had studied biology before discovering other ways to study health care.

Much of the coursework for public health students revolves around disease prevention and social determinants of health, which includes the environment and background people grow up in. Students learn how to study solutions for both individuals and populations dealing with problems like diabetes or infant mortality.

“We focus on trying to make sure that we are… trying to fix [a potential illness] before it actually gets to the treatment phase,” Green said.

Hands-on learning is critical to the study of public health, Green said, and it’s important for students to immerse themselves in the communities they want to serve. In one course, for instance, public health students conduct food surveys as to assess what access Arlington residents have to fresh and healthy groceries.

COVID-19 misinformation also influenced coursework. Students learn public health communication skills, which have to be tailored to fit different populations and communities based on education levels and cultural practices, she said.

Sarah Butler, a senior public health and exercise science double major at UTA, spent part of her fall semester organizing a public health conference with community groups to help educate students on COVID-19 and health disparities. She said it was “the highlight of my semester.”

Career options are varied for public health students. Nationally, the top public health graduate level areas of study are epidemiology, health policy and management and health education. Green said the interests of her students range from pandemic outbreaks to infant mortality to sex education.

Hall, who extended her certificate program into a Master’s of Public Health, will graduate in May and plans to pursue a career in community health working with underserved communities.

“The field is so broad, so whatever your personal interests are, there’s something for you,” Hall said. “For me, personally, I have an interest in maternal and child health, so that’s also something I want to pursue in the future.”

Regardless of what specific career they choose, having more people in public health will expand the number of resources available to North Texas communities, Green said.

“If we had more individuals trained in the field of public health, especially trained with practitioners that are giving them hands-on applications, we really could do a great service to our area,” she said.

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