Fort Lewis College established the first public health undergraduate degree program in the state in 2010, and since then, it has exceeded expectations, growing faster than anticipated and breaking out of its niche.
Shere Byrd, a biology professor, saw need for the program because many of her pre-med students were interested in returning home to improve health in their communities. The public health degree would provide a far less time-consuming and more affordable option for them.
At the same time, the college was hearing from health professionals in New Mexico that there was a great need for Native Americans to return to their home communities and work in public health.
“Mostly, it was fitting a niche,” she said.
The program was envisioned as a good fit for Native American, first-generation minorities and others interested in working in health. Often, many students aren’t aware of public health as a career path, and the training available to run preventive health programs that can improve the health of entire communities, she said.
“It’s not even on their radar. For many of them, it probably should be,” Byrd said.
Public health was traditionally taught in graduate degree programs, but in 2003, an Institute of Medicine report called for undergraduate degrees.
“It is really just taking off all over the country,” public health professor Kevin Griffith said.
FLC’s public health degree has about 110 students, and it has been growing faster than anticipated, with wait-lists for classes, Griffith said. From 2010 through 2016, 63 students graduated from the program, he said.
The major is most commonly associated with state and county public health department jobs, and several FLC graduates have gone to work for San Juan Basin Public Health, he said. The degree is also good preparation for those interested in nursing, social work, nonprofits, health care policy and politics, health care management and administration, and health law.
FLC junior Matisse Monty, a public health and sociology major, started out as a pre-med student but became interested in the social-cultural aspects of health.
Studying both sociology and public health has allowed her to see the connection between, race, sex and socioeconomic status and how those factors contribute to health disparities. She also studied how systems of oppression affect health care.
After graduation, she is interested in joining the Peace Corps and working on women’s health issues. She may also pursue her master’s degree in public health and organize health programs professionally.
“I would love to organize events and just be able to reach out to people,” she said.
In recent years, the degree program has evolved significantly. At one point, it had four tracks for students that focused on specific areas, such as environmental health and Native American health. It has been redesigned in recent years to be more broad, and current classes cover community health behavior, epidemiology, global health and communication, Griffith said.
One of the recently added classes prepares students to share health information with communities, public officials and the media, he said.
The program was started with just one professor who relied on other departments. In recent years, it has added two tenured professors and plans to add a fourth in the fall, he said.
“We are trying to build something that will be sustainable,” he said.
However, the long-term future of public health program depends on the direction of the college’s new administration, he said. The next president of FLC is expected to be named April 15.