Kinesiology students at PolyFit train their peers on how to use the equipment, an important part of health education. Quinn Fish | Mustang News

Maternal obesity. Chronic disease. Injury. Endocrine disorders. Cancer. The effects of aging. These threats are just a few of the reasons kinesiology professor Suzanne Phelan helped establish the new public health degree at Cal Poly starting Fall 2018.

More than 500 incoming freshmen applied for approximately 45 spots in the new public health major, according to Kinesiology and Public Health Department Chair Kristine Jankovitz. Current students will be able to switch into the major starting Fall 2018 and transfer students will be able to transfer in during Fall 2019.

Public health promotes and protects the health of the people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play, according to the American Public Health Association. Or, as Jankovitz put it, “Doctors save one life at a time, but public health saves thousands of lives at a time.”

The new major falls within the College of Science and Mathematics in the Kinesiology and Public Health Department, formerly the Kinesiology Department, and would earn students a Bachelor of Science. The major was adapted from the health promotion concentration within the kinesiology program, according to Phelan. There are four possible concentrations in the new program: community and public health, culture and society in health, physical activity in public health and worksite and university health promotion.

The public health major is the brainchild of Jankovitz, who began working on creating the major approximately five years ago, though said she had been thinking about the idea for 20 years.

The inspiration for the major ultimately came from both societal need and student interest.

Kinesiology and Public Health Department Chair Kristine Jankovitz has had the idea of starting the public health major for around 20 years. Quinn Fish | Mustang News

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected national growth in jobs from 2016 to 2026 is 16 percent in health education, 15 percent in nurses, 37 percent in physician assistants, 29 percent in medical assistant jobs and 9 percent growth in epidemiologists.

Jankovitz emphasized the significant increase in the need for health educators.

“If just telling people what to do worked, no one would have smoked a cigarette after 1964 when the U.S. Surgeon General said that smoking is hazardous to your health,” Jankovitz said. “Just giving people the information is not enough, it’s helping people find a way to integrate it into their lifestyle with all of the stresses and strains that come into people’s lives to make a change.”

Microbiology sophomore Ayesa Kearns volunteered at Children’s Hospital Oakland in high school and recalled working with a public health educator who communicated with families of sick children to translate medical jargon into relatable terms.

“[Public health] is so much more impactful,” Kearns said. “Doctors can tell you so much about what’s going on in your body, but you don’t understand the terms or anything; that’s where someone like [her] could step in and explain it to you.”

Kearns plans on applying to switch into the new major with the ultimate goal of becoming an epidemiologist or serving on the board of a hospital.

“I think of public health as … the front lines and the people who are actually out in the field and are really making that connection with people on that personal level,” Kearns said. “The interactions with people are really important, and just raising awareness and educating people on medicine is
so interesting.”

Kearns explained that much of her initial interest in switching to public health came from her interest in studying abroad with a program that would allow her to engage in public health in another country. She also expressed her excitement about internship opportunities in the field.

To implement Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy, a public health internship is offered as an alternative to the senior project in the new major’s curriculum.

“Our mission is to serve the students and to make sure that they’re employable upon graduation, and/or prepared to go to earn advanced degrees,” Phelan said. “Given that this is a growing field and a growing need, we need a work force and we need students equipped and ready and prepared for this.”

The Kinesiology and Public Health Department has been in contact with the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Health and has had several students intern with them for a number of years.

“I think an internship is essential in this type of [field] because it really gets your hands into what public health is,” Kearns said. “It’s not a hard science, it’s not [always] in a lab, you know, it’s working with people and figuring out these social issues and diseases … and what it means to them and how it affects them.”

While the required curriculum includes courses in health, kinesiology, anthropology, sociology, biology, chemistry, microbiology, nutrition, psychology and statistics, the ultimate goal of the degree is to prepare students for careers in a wide range of fields.

Because a portion of students are joining public health to pursue medical careers, such as becoming nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists or medical assistants, Jankovitz wants students to have a strong grounding in the social determinants of health.

Other careers in the field of public health include city planners, healthcare managers, healthcare advocates and medical administrative assistants, to name a few.

Jankovitz and her colleagues are incredibly hopeful about the new program and encourage collaboration amongst other programs that coincide with public health, which they feel is a majority of the university.

“Public health is not one discipline, it is by nature many, and so it would have to be, by definition, a multidisciplinary collaboration, so we welcome [collaboration] and we rely on it,” Phelan said. “Get involved, whether it’s small research projects or deciding to major in the degree, but come and learn more about it.”

Informational sessions on the new major will be held April 12 and 26 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Kinesiology (building 43A), room 150, as well as April 19 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., location to be announced.

Students can submit an inquiry form about changing their major to public health through the Change of Major Portlet on the Cal Poly portal. To learn more, visit the department’s website here.

Edit: This post was edited to correct the dates in which students can transfer into the Public Health major. We previously stated that current students can transfer in during Fall 2019. That has been corrected to say that current students can transfer in during Fall 2018 and transfer students can transfer in during Fall 2019.

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