Interest in public health program rises amid COVID-19


Courtesy to WOOD TV

Rachel Matuszewski

If there’s one good thing that has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic news coverage, it is the increase in public health interest. As public health has become a household name due to the variety of jobs that have helped control the spread of COVID-19, the popularity of public health programs has simultaneously risen. 

Grand Valley State University has seen public health degree enrollment double since last year. With the pandemic taking hold of news coverage for the majority of 2020, 100 colleges using the Common Application saw a 20% increase in applications to earn a master’s degree in public health, according to the Associated Press. Although the pandemic does not guarantee the cause of the increase, Ranelle Brew, chair and associate professor of public health at GVSU, thinks the pandemic may have contributed to the surge in interest. 

“The pandemic has really helped to shed some light on the facets of public health that people now understand,” Brew said. “It’s kind of like unexpected marketing.” 

GVSU’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program offers a traditional and hybrid program for graduate students. During the application process, students have the option to choose a traditional or online learning experience. Brew said the hybrid option has been two years in the making and was conveniently launched in the Fall of 2020 just as the university was transitioning to online teaching. She assured that the curriculum is exactly the same for each format. Even when in-person classes transitioned online, the department provided students with synchronous Zoom classes in order to mimic an in-person learning environment. 

But the biggest difference in learning this year was not the format of the curriculum. Rather, students in public health had the opportunity to experience the real-world examples provided by the pandemic.

“(They have) the most unique opportunity of a lifetime,” Brew said. “To be a student in a program the whole world is talking about. Just to be able to have had the real-world experience while they were in the classroom, they’re learning and experiencing it firsthand. There literally is no better time to be a student in the public health program than right now while you’re learning and seeing this unfold at the same time.”

Students have the option to earn their master’s degree with a health promotion or epidemiology emphasis. Brew said both are front and center in the COVID-19 response. The pandemic began with health promotion which includes questions on how the disease spreads and its impact on individuals, while the epidemiology side focuses on the data collection of case numbers and mortality rate. 

A first-year MPH student and Army veteran, Sean Verschueren focuses on health promotion. There are over 1,000 job titles related to public health and the versatility of career options offered drew Verschuren to the program. 

Verschueren appreciates the ways professors have gone above and beyond in providing extra help for curriculum or simply giving real-world advice. Currently, Verschuren’s interest in public health includes assisting veterans and studying physical fitness. His practicum is with Jill Wolfe, GVSU’s Military and Veteran resource manager, to work to increase GVSU as a veteran-friend environment and help veterans transition from military service to college life. Additionally, he said his job at the YMCA has the potential for opportunities as well.  

Brew is proud of the ways MPH students have responded to COVID and been role models for their peers and families to increase the prevention of the virus. For Verschueren, the pandemic never initiated his decision to study public health, but has reminded him of the impact public health has made.

“(The COVID-19 pandemic) strengthened my resolve to be in public health,” Verschueren said. “COVID-19 showed me and a lot of the students in my cohort that public health is just as much on the front lines as doctors and nurses.”