The School of Public Health and Health Professions has been awarded $1.3 million from the U.S. government to help train the next generation of public health workers by providing scholarship opportunities to graduate students from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups.
UB is one of 29 universities receiving a total of $40.7 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through its Public Health Scholarship Program. It’s part of a $266 million package in American Rescue Plan funding aimed at growing the nation’s community and public health workforce.
The program will fund graduate tuition for Master of Public Health (all concentrations) and advanced public health certificate program students from underrepresented backgrounds from Western New York. The emphasis will be on creating a path to graduate education for students from underrepresented groups.
“This funding is a big deal for our school and the university, and especially the Western New York region, which will benefit tremendously from an influx of much-needed public health practitioners in the coming years,” says Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions. “This scholarship program incentivizes individuals to pursue careers in public health and removes an important financial barrier. We are proud to be selected for this funding and the opportunities it will provide.”
The HRSA program comes at a pivotal point in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is currently a lot of interest in public health, and these topics are being talked about between friends and family of all ages and walks of life,” says Gregory Homish, professor and chair of the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and principal investigator on the award. “The scholarship program paves the way for a new generation of public health researchers, activists, health promoters, health educators and practitioners.”
Importantly, that new generation will comprise students from backgrounds that previously lacked opportunities to pursue graduate education.
“The cost of a graduate public health degree is a major obstacle for many. Funding from the HRSA grant provides pathways to public health careers for those from economically, educationally and environmentally disadvantaged, or racially and ethnically underrepresented backgrounds who often do not see a clear path forward,” says Kim Krytus, assistant dean and director of graduate public health programs in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and program director for the HRSA grant.
“Key to this program is training future practitioners to prevent pandemics and other public health emergencies, and eliminate health disparities in medically underserved communities, which our graduates will be well-prepared to do,” Krytus says. She adds that HRSA trainees can study in master of public health (MPH) concentrations of biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology or health services administration, in addition to community health and health behavior. Students can also tailor their coursework through an individualized MPH.
Trainees will receive a world-class education from a nationally ranked public health school — UB’s was No. 31 in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings — extended field training for more in-depth exposure to public health practice, a certificate in Public Health Leadership from Coursera and increased community engagement with the school’s Western New York partner organizations.
Students will receive training in core public health competencies, strategies to eliminate health disparities, and emergency and pandemic preparedness response. Their education will equip them with tools to be successful as they strive to positively influence the health of the populations and communities they’ll work with in the future, says Homish.
UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions has a strong track record of training public health professionals, graduating 95% of its students and placing 99% of job-seeking graduates in health-related jobs.
Still, Western New York in particular suffers from a severe shortage of public health workers, a problem exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and some parts of the region have among the worst health outcomes in the state. HRSA’s Public Health PRACTICE (Prepare, Respond and Collaborate to Address Inequities, COVID and other Emergencies) grant aims to address both issues by ensuring that area health departments and community-based organizations have skilled staff to reduce health disparities and lead COVID-19 response.
The program is rooted in several key objectives, including educating the public health workforce to address public health inequities and health disparities, and incorporate principles of social determinants of health into practice. Another objective involves training the public health workforce to prevent, prepare for and respond to recovery activities related to COVID-19, as well as other public health emergencies, by providing public health field experience opportunities.
“We are educating the future of public health to be adaptable to changes in our populations and environment, while also being prepared for public health crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health emergencies that emerge across the globe,” says Homish. “The health of the region, nation and world is constantly evolving, and our curriculum is tailored to prepare graduates to be critical and innovative thinkers to best handle the challenges that they could see in practice.”
Co-investigators from the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior include Heather Orom, associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion, associate professor and director of graduate studies; and Sarahmona Przybyla, assistant dean, director of undergraduate public health programs, and assistant professor.