Reprinted with permission from St. Olaf College. View the full original article, which was published on Dec. 20, 2022.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought terms like epidemiology, herd immunity, and viral transmission into everyday conversation. Now a new academic program is bringing the discipline of public health into the classroom for St. Olaf College students.
Public health is a wide-ranging field that brings together professionals across disciplines. Similarly, St. Olaf’s new public health concentration spans classes in 14 academic departments, including psychology, economics, and mathematics. Any student can concentrate in public health, even if their primary focus at St. Olaf is as varied as studio art or political science.
“There’s room for everyone in public health,” says Associate Professor of Practice in Nursing and Department Chair Susan Huehn. “It’s not just about treating a patient’s asthma. It’s about looking deeply at the complex factors that contribute to the onset of asthma, such as air quality and housing.”
The new public health concentration builds on the strength St. Olaf has long had in preparing students for careers in health care. Oles like Georgia Department of Health Program Coordinator Katie Kassa ’12, Good Samaritan Health Center Chief Operations Officer Breanna Lathrop ’06, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Senior Advancement Officer Ian Hamilton ’14 have developed successful careers in public health by leveraging the liberal arts education they received at St. Olaf.
“I think the liberal arts approach is so fitting for public health because it teaches you to approach an issue from all sides. No one discipline really has the answer to a problem. It takes holistic thinking,” Kassa says in the video profile above. “No matter what you’re interested in, if you’re passionate about health as a social justice issue, then there’s something that you can do in public health.”
St. Olaf’s new concentration formalizes the interdisciplinary approach to studying public health.
Among the available courses is one that delves into the science of public health: epidemiology. The class is taught by another Ole who knows a thing or two about public health: Kris Ehresmann ’84. She recently retired from a three-decades-long career at the Minnesota Department of Health, most recently serving as the state’s infectious disease director. At MDH, Ehresmann’s leadership helped guide Minnesota through multiple public health challenges, including responses to or preparation for outbreaks of measles, Ebola, and fungal meningitis. Most recently, she played a central role as Minnesota navigated the first phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ehresmann is thrilled to be back on the Hill, contributing to the public health concentration. As an expert in epidemiology, she knows the next pandemic won’t be prevented by a team of just nurses or doctors — and wants to do her part to prepare the next generation of public health leaders.
“Health is so much bigger than doctors and stethoscopes,” she says. “Epidemiology involves teams made up of nurses, doctors, social workers, lawyers, and mathematicians.”
That view of public health is echoed by Lathrop, who shares in the profile below how her experiences volunteering for a free clinic as a St. Olaf student led her to a career in public health. She now helps lead a clinic that provides free and reduced-cost health care while continuing to research and advocate for changes to public health policy.
In its first year, the public health concentration has already captured the attention of St. Olaf students.
“We had our first student declare a public health concentration within 24 hours of the announcement [of the new concentration],” says Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Public Health Concentration Director Andrea Conger. Part of this excitement is the fact that anyone — even those without a STEM-heavy background — can add the public health concentration.
Hamilton, a political science and theater major at St. Olaf, shares how his experience at St. Olaf led him to a career with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation in the video profile below.
The decision to build public health as a concentration as opposed to a major was intentional. While many colleges have majors and minors, St. Olaf is unusual in offering students majors and concentrations. Concentrations include courses in multiple departments and are meant to be accessible by all students.
People who work in public health have to think broadly, and this concentration works to develop that style of thinking. “We cannot just target one area of public health,” says Conger. “We have to be interdisciplinary.”
Since the public health concentration asks students to find connections between health and other fields, the future of the field is exciting. Oles will be considering the implications of public health in everything from where a pedestrian bridge is built to how much time high schoolers should spend in class. “We’re preparing students for jobs that we haven’t even imagined yet,” says Conger. “How cool is that?”