Student experience: Undergrad to Grad program trailblazers

By Debra Venzke

Published on December 13, 2016

Jarren Santos and Gina Chieffo, two of the first students enrolled in the College of Public Health’s new Undergraduate to Graduate program, talk about their path to public health and future goals.


Completing both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in five years may not be part of every student’s plan, but for ambitious learners who have found their academic calling, an Undergraduate to Graduate program (U2G) can be a real time- and money-saver.

The recently established U2G program at the University of Iowa College of Public Health enables students to earn their undergraduate degree and a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree or Master of Science (MS) degree in five years instead of the typical six.

portrait of Jarren Santos
Jarren Santos

Jarren Santos, a fourth-year student at Grinnell College, is one of nine students currently enrolled in the College of Public Health’s U2G program. Santos, who is majoring in general sciences-biology and minoring in statistics, has already begun coursework that will lead to a MPH degree in quantitative methods.

Santos traces his path to the U2G program to a series of events that began when he hit a wall with a research project.

“At one point while doing summer research, I felt absolutely frustrated while conducting statistical analyses on my collected data because I honestly had no idea what test to use and what my analyses actually told me about the underlying differences,” says Santos, who is originally from Las Vegas, Nev. “After that experience, I decided to pursue some statistics coursework at Grinnell, and I immediately got hooked. I thought it was so fascinating to see that data, whether big or small, had a story to tell if organized well. I wanted to move forward with a career that could combine elements of health and elements of statistics, and pursuing the U2G option felt like my best opportunity to do so.”

A Diverse Field

“Public health is a diverse, multidisciplinary field that fits a lot of students’ interests and skills,” adds Tanya Uden-Holman, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Public Health. “The Undergrad to Grad program is a great option for motivated students who are interested in improving the health of communities and populations. It saves time, money, and prepares them to enter a public health career or go on to further study.”

Currently, the U2G program is open to undergraduate students at the University of Iowa, Coe College, and Grinnell College who meet academic requirements. Students begin by taking the introductory course Fundamentals of Public Health during their freshman or sophomore year. During their junior year, they can apply to the U2G program after taking the GRE exam.

In addition to their undergraduate degree, students can choose to earn an MPH in community and behavioral health, epidemiology, occupational and environmental health, policy, or quantitative methods. Master of Science degrees are available in epidemiology or industrial hygiene.

A Path to Public Health

portrait of Gina Chieffo
Gina Chieffo

Gina Chieffo, a University of Iowa senior from Bettendorf, Iowa, is pursuing a double major in psychology and engaged social innovation along with an MPH in community and behavioral health.

“I got interested in public health because I took some public health courses for my engaged social innovation major. I realized that I really liked it and wanted to do the master’s program,” Chieffo says.

The engaged social innovation (ESI) track is an interdepartmental studies major established in 2014 that encourages students to seek out and develop solutions to social problems. Designed to pair with an existing major and extend that major’s scope into areas of social concern, the ESI track enables students to apply their learning in real-world settings.

“I did a lot of volunteer work with Crisis Center of Johnson County,” Chieffo continues. “I talked to a lot of people with mental health issues who didn’t have the resources or support network to get help. I was originally interested in doing clinical psychology, but seeing the social and structural issues instead of the individual-level issues from my volunteer work is what led me to want to do public health.”

Making Connections

Chieffo is also working with Natoshia Askelson, assistant professor of community and behavioral health, as a research assistant. She helps write blog posts for “I Am In Control,” a blog for teens on health, relationship, and life topics funded by the Iowa Department of Public Health. She also helps with data collection and coding as needed for a variety of projects.

“Having connections with professors helps add to my experience, since I can’t always attend the different talks the college offers,” Chieffo says of her research assistant experience. “It’s nice to be connected to what’s happening in the college outside of class.”

For Santos, being part of a UI graduate program that’s based an hour away from the Grinnell campus has both benefits and challenges. Students from Coe and Grinnell take their initial public health classes online and, during Year 5 of the program, complete their graduate coursework on the University of Iowa campus.

“It feels nice to know that you already have a post-undergraduate plan while the rest of the seniors are struggling to find jobs and apply to graduate schools,” he says. “However, I do feel slightly disconnected from my UI peers since I am not physically there and spending time with them in other classes and such. Being a part of a new program like this, I’m genuinely excited and look forward to the many opportunities and interactions with public health professionals.”

Looking to the Future

As for future plans, both Santos and Chieffo are eager to put their degrees to use.

“I hope to pursue a career in data analytics or data management, especially in the health or business sectors,” says Santos. “I’m passionate about taking a data-driven approach when it comes to conducting research and making decisions. We have so much data available, so we should make sure to take advantage of such resources and use it to the best of our ability.  Although data does not tell us all of the story, it does give us a new perspective on any given situation.”

“I want to work with an NGO at some point, and I’m interested in working globally too, but right now I’m interested in seeing all the different options public health has,” Chieffo says. “I could see myself working at a lot of different levels, maybe going back to get my PhD in community and behavioral health and doing research. I want to have a really broad perspective by working in different places. I just want to get into the field and see what connections I can make from there.”

For more information on the U2G program at the UI College of Public Health, visit


Photo of Jarren Santos by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College

Photo of Gina Chieffo by John Choate/University of Iowa