Public health major opens doors for a wide variety of health careers

MCLA FeigenbaumMCLA's Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation.

MCLA’s former bachelor of science in community health education will now become a bachelor of science in public health and community health education.

This name change better reflects what students are learning as they work towards careers in medicine, epidemiology, nutrition, health policy, and more.  “We already teach a lot of the foundational concepts of public health in our classes, and community health is a subsection of public health,” said Assistant Professor of Biology Nicole Porther, who coordinates MCLA’s public health and community health education program. “The change reflects that we’re offering a comprehensive and holistic program in public health. We had a great foundation; the name needed to reflect that. We’re making sure we’re positioning our students well when they graduate.”

Students that complete the major are still prepared and eligible to sit the Community Health Education Certification exam. Taking the exam allows students to go on to careers in community health programming, including work at hospitals, nonprofits, school settings, and in the field of disease prevention.  

Porther said that a public health degree, or students on MCLA’s pre-med track taking public health classes, can help them as future medical professionals in understanding the societal aspects of health. “Public health is more population-based, and looks at preventative care—why do people get sick? If you learn to think that way, I think you develop more empathy as opposed to dealing exclusively in clinical care.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic became a fixture in the news, Porther says she’s seen more student interested in public health. “Public health is essential,” she said, “but it’s not like the movie ‘Contagion.’ Public health is about being proactive and diligent in addressing the collective needs of communities and ensuring that we do not succumb to inevitable disease outbreaks.”

Her students are learning a lot in the context of the pandemic as well. One student is currently interning with the Berkshire Area Health Education Center in Pittsfield, analyzing data on vaccinations and the impacts of the pandemic on the Berkshire community from increased food insecurity to health outcomes that have worsened due to COVID.

Students in Porther’s Health in Promotion and Planning class are doing research projects, looking at the impacts of isolation, quarantine, and increases in morbidity and mortality related to drug overdoses within the context of the pandemic. Students in her Health Promotion class are partnering with MCLA’s Institute for Arts and Humanities and Berkshire Cultural Resource Center to host a virtual community panel on vaccines featuring local health experts who have worked directly on pandemic response in the Berkshires.

“They’re learning while they’re applying what they learn,” said Porther. The panel “was the students’ suggestion.”