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Coronavirus spurs students to seek public health degrees

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When COVID-19 hit, Jakira Lewis put her academics into practice.

A second-year student at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, Lewis dove into working as a case investigator and contact tracer.

“It was really exciting at first getting that firsthand experience,” she said. But, after working 12-hour days, coping with the emotions of people infected with the virus, and seeing exhausted frontline workers, “it starts to feel a little hopeless.”

Still, the experience inspired her career path. “It has really pushed my drive for researching health disparities, especially the disparities we’ve seen within the Black community,” said Lewis.

Once she graduates with her master’s degree, Lewis plans on pursuing a doctorate in public health, focusing on maternal and child health in addition to disparities.

She is among a growing number of students across the nation who, because of the pandemic, have developed a strong interest in public health and are channeling that into degrees.

Public health programs that use the common application for admissions reported a 20 percent increase in applications to master’s in public health programs for the 2020-21 academic year, according to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.

Interest in Florida-based programs has skyrocketed.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in applications,” said Donna Petersen, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

In December, applications to USF’s masters of public health program were up nearly 200 percent, according to Petersen. Similarly, the number of applications rose 50 percent for the Doctor of Public Health program and nearly 80 percent for other doctoral programs in the college.

Among those pursuing master’s degrees, there’s an increased interest in pandemic-related specialties, including epidemiology, infection control, and global health disaster management.

Additionally, the school is seeing more interest among African American students, according to Petersen, who said the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on communities of color, coupled with more frequent conversations about race, may be driving the rise.

In recent months as the coronavirus spread, Damaria Smith — a fourth-year student studying public health at the Florida State University — co-founded Minorities in Public Health along with junior Carla Reddick. The group is aimed at starting dialogues around health disparities and informing minority communities about public health issues.

Around FSU’s campus in Tallahassee, Smith sees the Black community often concentrated in food deserts and areas with few health care providers. “They don’t get the chance to have good health,” she said.

Her devotion to the field solidified when, through her coursework, she realized the direct link between public health and those disparities.

“I knew of (the disparities), but I didn’t know how bad they were,” said Smith, who grew up with a single mother in a predominantly Black Polk County neighborhood and now dreams of becoming a health policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florida State’s public health major for undergraduates is new — started in the fall of 2019 — but “it’s the fastest growing major at FSU,” said Amy Burdette, director of the department. Her original proposal for the program projected 100 to 200 students would be currently enrolled. This year, there are more than 450 majors.

“Our growth has just exploded,” Burdette said.

And while Black students make up 9 percent of FSU’s overall student body, nearly 20 percent of those in the major are Black, with Black women leading the way, according to Burdette. “We have more Black students and students of color than a lot of other majors at FSU.”

Before the pandemic, public health programs across the country were seeing a decline in interest, said Viviana Horigian, director of public health education at the University of Miami. Then in the fall of 2020, she said, “we showed a phenomenal uptick” in applications, including among students of color.

In addition to the pandemic, college and university deans credit the interest to outreach initiatives that have been part of a years-long process.

It’s a combination of intentional recruiting and young adults wanting to make an impact, said Magnolia Hernandez, an assistant dean at Florida International University’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work.

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