GRAND FORKS -- With public health workers assuming a prominent national role over the last year, interest in the field appears to be on the rise as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Late last year, medical schools across the country reported a surge in applications to medical school, with many applicants indicating that the ongoing pandemic influenced them to go into the medical field. The same logic appears to be applying to public health programs, too.
Emily Dunsworth, assistant dean of recruitment and enrollment at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said there has been a 30% increase in applications this year.
“They want to be part of the solution to all different public health crises that we're facing right now and none of them are new,” she said. “Certainly, the pandemic has brought so many different kinds of public health issues to the forefront.”
The University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences has reported an increase in applications to its master’s in public health program. Applications are up 11% for UND’s master’s in public health program this academic year, compared with the 2019-20 academic year. Additionally, from the 2018-19 to the 2019-20 school year, there was a 50% increase. Admitted student numbers also are up, said Ashley Evenson, manager of UND’s public health program.
“I think we may have seen just a little bit of uptick pre-pandemic, but I think the pandemic has really opened up a lot of people's eyes,” she said. “Talking with perspective students, I feel like what I'm hearing more and seeing … is that people's eyes have been open to public health."
And what has Evenson been hearing from those students?
"'What can I do? I want to help be the solution,'" she said. "‘I want to help be the solution to the public health problems that we're seeing.’”
But students are entering the workforce during an interesting time for public health employees. Through the pandemic, public health has stepped into the spotlight as people see just one aspect of what the field can do.
Alyse Haven, a second-year maternal and child health MPH student at the University of Minnesota, is preparing to graduate this month with her master’s in public health.
When the pandemic was in its early stages, Haven said she was excited and hopeful it might mean a larger discussion about having more funding for public health. But, as things have progressed, Haven isn’t so sure what the outcome for public health will be in the future.
“It makes me a little skeptical for what things are going to look like moving forward when our lives kind of go back to normal,” she said. “Will there be long-term ramifications? Will there be more support for public health? I'm not so sure.”
There has been an emphasis on epidemiology and infectious diseases during the pandemic and the role public health plays in that, but Haven emphasized that public health is much more than vaccinations and COVID-19 tests.
Public health is epidemiology, maternal and childhood health, disaster relief, safe drinking water and so much more, Haven noted.
Andrew Weiss, who is finishing his second year at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, feels similar. Weiss is interested in how sleep influences adolescent learning and the role that policymakers, like school districts, have in setting school start times. Even something that may seem as arbitrary as when school starts has a tie to public health. It’s something that touches every aspect of life, Weiss said.
“It's super ingrained into all aspects of society, but it's very easily overlooked,” he said of public health.
Angie Novak, a UND MPH student graduating from the program this month, said the career opportunities are never ending with a master’s in public health. That's because the field is so diverse, she said.
“I know, with my degree that I can just do anything I want really with it,” she said.
But even as public health workers see waves of support over the last year, there is still distrust and misinformation that can damper the relationship between a person and their local public health agency.
"I would just say that I felt a lot of mixed emotions going through the pandemic.”
- Angie Novak, a UND master's of public health program student
Weiss said there does seem to be general support of public health in large cities like Minneapolis, yet a bit of skepticism or lack of complete trust in rural parts of the region.
That may be because rural residents may not see the full benefit of public health and its role in underserved areas, Weiss speculates. People in those areas might also see less transmission of COVD-19, or may not have been as affected as metropolitan areas until much later.
“But (there’s) definitely a stark difference that I think is going to be a challenge in overcoming,” he said.
Novak served as a contact tracer during her last year of schooling. While there were a lot of people who didn’t want to comply with contact tracing efforts, there also was support for public health and the work she and her colleagues were doing.
“I would just say that I felt a lot of mixed emotions going through the pandemic,” she said.
Haven, who has been working with the Minnesota Department of Health’s vaccine distribution, said she’s seen both sides of vaccine support and distrust. She’s seen the work the health department is doing to get the vaccines out to the public, but she’s also seen the pushback some have had against the vaccinations.
“And those are the people that are really hard to get to because you could give them all the science in the world, and they'll find one thing that supports their argument not to trust it,” Haven said.
If people are interested in attending school for public health, Haven encourages students to keep their options open and not box themselves into a specific field.
“It's an active choice that you have to make to explore things outside of your field,” she said. “But I would really encourage people to do it, because it's only going to help them be a more well-rounded public health professional to know things outside of their main interest area.”
“Bring it on public health professionals, now's a great time to apply. Get in there. You’re going to be needed in the future,” he said.