Sep. 01 2017

Setting Out to Make a Difference

As they embark on an education in public health, incoming students bring diverse backgrounds and aspirations, united with shared purpose to improve the world

Hundreds of students began their Mailman School journey in the Armory on August 29 by standing and reciting the Public Health Oath. After a week of orientation, classes begin today.

In welcoming remarks, Dean Linda P. Fried invited incoming students to envision a not-distant future in which, armed with new skills and degrees, they would join or rejoin the ranks of public health practitioners and “significantly impact lives by the dozens, thousands, and even millions.”

Public health must always be ready to respond to a multitude of challenges, Dean Fried continued, naming recent hostilities in Charlottesville, Virginia, and flooding in Texas. “On these and so many issues, we are committed to working together to build solutions for society.”

Incoming students, who total 663, come from 37 countries and 34 states and range in age from 20 to 64. Each brings unique experiences and aspirations, united by passion to make the world a better place.

Throughout his undergraduate experience in Washington, D.C., Jacob Maxmin, an MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences, saw flaws in the way sexual assault is taught to young people. “I hope to use my studies at Columbia to guide me in my thinking on how to more effectively craft and implement preventive education, especially for young cis-gendered heterosexual men,” he said.

With five years’ experience in the public health workforce on both coasts, Jennifer Britton, an MPH student in Population and Family Health, aims to improve her skills in program development and advocacy around reproductive health. “With a lot of things that are happening [to threaten womens health] in this country right now,” she said, “it feels like a very important thing to take on.”

Throughout the week, students oriented themselves to the School, navigating its buildings and surroundings, and getting to know faculty, staff, and fellow classmates. Activities included the Self, Social, Global Awareness training, in which students explore issues of power, privilege, and identity, as well as a walking tour through Washington Heights.

As classes start, some curricular innovations go into effect. Vice Dean for Education Julie Kornfeld and colleagues in the School’s leadership have updated the DrPH program as part of the process of reaccreditation through the Council on Education for Public Health. Their goal: making the program the best of its kind in the country. First-year DrPH students will now take part in Integration of Science and Practice (ISP), a mainstay of the Core Curriculum. Previously limited to MPH students, this yearlong series of small group sessions focuses on developing problem-solving and professional skills. MPH students will also have a chance to extend their learning through a monthly series of Core Conversations with faculty on topics such as aging, mental health, and substance misuse.

During orientation week, incoming students Nadeem Fazal and Shamaal Sheppard realized that they had more in common than their department and degree program. In addition to both being MPH students in the Department of Health Policy Management, they previously faced-off during a track meet as college freshmen. “Four years later, here we are sitting next to each other at orientation,” explained Sheppard. (Read a Q&A with Fazal and Sheppard.)

When they weren’t on the track, Fazal and Sheppard were each finding their way to an education in public health. A summer studying health systems in Costa Rica helped Sheppard, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, understand how health policy can help marginalized communities. Fazal, a University of Delaware graduate, says he was drawn in by the power of primary prevention. “I always had the notion that I wanted to help people.”