Pandemic fuels interest in public health careers
As a biology major, Ariel Hall dreamed of becoming a physician. After graduation, she discovered that her passion to serve underrepresented minorities could best be expressed through a career in public health.
Hall, now a second-year student in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at The University of Texas at Arlington, has already accepted a position as a community health worker at JPS Health Network (JPS). She’s one of a growing number of UTA students who have gravitated toward the field, two years into a pandemic that is fueling interest in public health programs and careers.
Erin Carlson, associate professor and director of graduate public health programs in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation, said the pandemic raised awareness of the field’s significance.
“COVID-19 has demonstrated the ubiquitous nature of public health in our everyday lives,” Carlson said. “Students no longer need to explain to their parents why they want to study public health. Everybody understands its importance now.”
Over two years, enrollment in UTA’s public health programs has grown rapidly. In fall 2021, 628 undergraduate students enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in public health program, representing a 38% increase since fall 2019. During the same time, the number of students seeking the MPH degree has tripled, from 12 to 37.
In addition to the increase in students, Carlson said she has witnessed a surge in career opportunities for recent graduates.
“There has been a seismic shift in public health internships and job opportunities,” Carlson said. “The pandemic created record demand for public health professionals.”
Hall was offered a full-time position after completing her student practicum at JPS. In the early days of vaccine availability, she developed educational materials and formed relationships between JPS and community partners to raise awareness of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. Now, she works in the same department where she performed her practicum to advance COVID-19 public health educational programs.
“Rather than only addressing an illness and how to cure it, public health professionals examine all of the environmental factors and social determinants that contribute to a person’s health,” Hall said. “Being a woman of color, I’m driven to work with diverse communities. I want to help people who look like me live healthier lives.”
In her first semester of graduate school, COVID-19 became a global health crisis. The pandemic affirmed Hall’s desire to become a public health professional.
“Research quickly showed that communities of color were at a greater risk for severe disease due to COVID-19,” Hall said. “For me, that was a confirmation that I was needed in this field and that I could really make a difference.”
UTA’s public health programs support a range of career goals and interests, including studies in racial and ethnic health disparities, health equity, diabetes, substance use, infectious diseases and physical activity and obesity prevention.
For those considering a public health degree, Carlson advised they let their interests guide them.
“If you like science, and you want to improve the well-being of a specific population or address concerns surrounding a certain disease, public health could be a great career for you,” she said.