Graduates of the college’s new undergraduate program are now starting their careers in public health.
By Debra Venzke
WHEN LAURA ECKLES started her college journey, public health wasn’t on her radar. Once she discovered it, however, she knew she’d found her niche.
“I happened to stumble upon this schooling,” she says of the BA in public health she earned from the University of Iowa College of Public Health in 2019. “My first declared major was biochemistry, but I had signed up for an introductory course in public health. I will never forget that class since it propelled me into the public health sector. I always knew I wanted to help others, and this course just confirmed that instead of focusing on treatment, I wanted to help prevent, mitigate, and promote overall health and well-being.”
Morgan Jessie (22BA) shares a similar story. “I started out knowing that I wanted to be in the health field in some capacity,” she says. “I realized that lab work and medicine were too technical for what I wanted to get out of my career. I then found public health and it just clicked.”
A Growing Program
As a home to well-established graduate programs, the College of Public Health expanded to include an undergraduate program offering both BA and BS degrees in public health. The college welcomed its first class of bachelor’s degree students in August 2016.
The undergraduate program was formed in part to respond to an increasing national need for public health workers. An aging workforce means many public health practitioners are set to retire in the next few years, with the stresses of the pandemic hastening the departure of many others.
“Our undergraduate program prepares students with a lot of important skills in project development and management, data collection, preparedness, and evaluation—they are well positioned to fill a number of public health roles,” says Brandi Janssen, director of the CPH undergraduate program and clinical associate professor of occupational and environmental health.
The undergraduate program has grown steadily since its establishment, with 185 students enrolled in fall 2022. Almost a third of these students identify as underrepresented racial minorities, and nearly 1 out of 5 students are first-generation college students.
“There are so many benefits to having diverse teams within a workplace as well as in public health as a whole,” says Janssen. “In a work setting, diversity in perspective and experience can help solve complex problems that one person couldn’t address alone. More broadly, public health professionals have to build trust with the communities they serve, and a workforce that reflects those communities is going to be better able to develop productive relationships.”
Alumni at Work
Following graduation, many students pursue graduate studies, while others enter the workforce. Laura Eckles, the student who switched from a biochemistry major to public health, joined the City of Mount Vernon, Iowa, as a city planner. “This career path has multiple similarities to other jobs in public health,” she says. “My role in the planning and zoning department aids in preventing adverse impacts on not only the built environment, but the community as a whole. I’m not just working in the present, but I’m also looking into the future at what can be done to protect and promote the health of citizens and visitors of the city.”
Eckles enjoyed the variety in her job and working with the public. “I love that I can make a positive impact on the community, whether that be through listening to an individual’s story and concerns, reviewing new project development, or creating or amending legislative language—all are significant!”
Since the publication of this story, Eckles started a new position as a research assistant with the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Iowa, where she studies transportation safety.
Morgan Jessie, the recent graduate, wears many hats in her role as a secretary at Des Moines County Public Health in Burlington, Iowa. She has helped conduct a social determinants of health survey for the county, analyzed data, and works with the public to answer questions about public health topics. “The best part is that my job is always evolving,” she says. “We have a small department of only around 11 people, so this means that I get to do more than would be expected as a secretarial role.”
She adds, “I’m excited to get the opportunity to learn what public health looks like both in times of crisis and in the mundane day-to-day of it all. This position, with the help of the director of the department, has presented the opportunity to meet so many people within the community and opportunities that will help me to further my career goals and learn from others.”
Brooke Zibell graduated with a BS in public health from Iowa in 2021. She continued on to a graduate program and earned an MHS degree in environmental health from Johns Hopkins University in 2022. She’s now employed as a pollution control analyst with the Baltimore County Government in White Marsh, Maryland.
Zibell also found public health to be a perfect fit. “Coming into college, I was really stuck between a career in health care and a career in the environmental sciences,” she says. “After doing some research, I found public health to be the perfect field at the intersection of both my passions for health and the environment.”
Her work as a pollution control analyst involves a variety of tasks. “There is always something different to be done, from taking groundwater samples, measuring landfill gas concentrations, ensuring compliance and safety, conducting stormwater inspections, writing reports, monitoring leachate patterns, working with consultants and other governmental jurisdictions, and so on,” she says. “What excites me most about my job is knowing that I’m making a difference in the public’s health and the surrounding environment.”
Janssen sees a bright future for the undergraduate public health program and its alumni. “I think we will see steady growth, especially as students continue to chart their unique paths after graduation,” she says.
“We anticipate that many will move into traditional public health roles, but many are also finding success outside of public health. We hear that their public health training has provided important skills that contribute to their success no matter where they are. I think these outcomes are especially exciting and show how a public health perspective is valuable in many different career settings.”
Students also appreciate what they gain beyond book learning at Iowa. “I value the connections and experiences that I had both in and out of the classroom,” Jessie says. “I grew so much at Iowa. The atmosphere is like nowhere else, and the College of Public Health really is full of professors and other faculty who genuinely care about this field and want to do as much as they can to prepare students for their futures in public health.”
A workforce in demand
22% of the government public health workforce was planning to retire by 2023, and 24% was considering leaving for other reasons, according to a 2017 survey.
According to a national analysis, state and local health departments need to hire a minimum of 80,000 more full-time equivalent positions (FTEs) — an increase of nearly 80% — to provide adequate infrastructure and a minimum package of public health services.
An FY20 survey of Iowa’s local public health systems found that:
- 98% of directors identify as white
- 90% of directors are female
- 40% of directors are 55+ years of age
students have earned a BA or BS in public health from Iowa as of May 2022
job/grad school placement rate for Iowa public health undergraduates
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of InSight magazine