After more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the harsh reality of health inequity in Wisconsin and across the United States, the first graduates of the School of Education’s new program aimed at bolstering health education and combating inequity are entering the workforce.
Seventy-six graduates are leaving campus with a bachelor of science degree in health promotion and health equity (HPHE) this spring and summer. Their degrees are aimed at preparing them to serve as health educators in a variety of places, from community health organizations to hospitals. Some may also pursue advanced degrees in medicine and allied health professions, armed with additional knowledge about obstacles to fostering health in diverse communities.
“The pandemic triggered a renewed sense of urgency — not only to combat these health disparities, but to address the conditions which produce them,” Dorothy Farrar-Edwards, the School of Education’s associate dean for research and a professor with the Department of Kinesiology, said during the spring commencement ceremony for HPHE graduates. “We are so fortunate that you, our graduates, have heard the call and are ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”
The HPHE program launched in 2019 within the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, in collaboration with the departments of Counseling Psychology and Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. At the time, the School set a goal of enrolling about 230 students in the major by the 2022-23 academic year. There were 309 students enrolled as of this spring.
Christeena Maria Jojo, a 2022 graduate, says she pursued the degree because it was a “perfect fit” for her interests in public and community health. Jojo chose the major as a pre-med student. She believes learning about health education in business and nonprofit settings will be valuable to her future work. “The HPHE major really brought those perspectives in,” she says. “I learned so much about empathy, cultural resilience, and reflection.”
Jojo plans to apply to medical school this upcoming cycle and hopes to find a job in public health during her gap year.
Gary Diffee, the William H. and Virginia F. Marsh Professor with the Department of Kinesiology and the School’s associate dean for health, served as chair of the Department of Kinesiology when the program launched. He says the program rolled out at just the right time.
“We just had this absolutely stark example right in front of us on a daily basis of the need for quality health information,” he says of the pandemic. “It really just made it clear that we really needed people out in community settings that had strong backgrounds in health and health education, and could be the voice of good, quality health information.”
Diffee says having well-trained professionals in trusted community organizations will play a crucial role in reaching people who have been harder to reach in traditional health care settings. He said opportunities for growth in the program — and its impact in communities that sorely need support — is nearly limitless.
“We’re only scratching the surface,” he says.