New degree boosts GCU's Public Health program

Public health professionals focus on disease prevention and promoting health. Jobs in the field vary widely, from working as nutritionists for government agencies or nonprofits to being epidemiologists or data analysts. The College of Nursing and Health Care Professions recently added a Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree.

Third of a nine-part series spotlighting each GCU college as the fall semester begins.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Dulce Ruelas knew she wanted to help her community.

She thought a career as a pediatrician would be that connection for her, so she majored in biology.

“Then halfway through the program, after two years of taking organic chemistry and anatomy & physiology, I was like, ‘This isn’t quite what I need,’” said Ruelas, Assistant Professor of Public Health in Grand Canyon University’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. “Then I found public health at a resource center and I was like, ‘THIS IS IT!’ I didn’t know public health existed as a degree.”

It was her a-ha moment -- not that she didn’t have that feeling, in her bones, of how she was really trying to shape her life.

Ruelas has plugged into the idea of community since she was little: “I grew up with a language barrier with my family, always having to translate and always having to be that liaison at a very young age between my family and the clinical/medical field.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the public health profession in the spotlight.

“Anywhere we went, I saw all these disparities – health disparities -- and how our social determinants of health were always affecting our health at the end of the day. So I knew that I wanted to do something in our communities, but I didn’t want to go down the clinical aspect of being a nurse or a doctor or clinician.”

Public health has been that passion for Ruelas, who worked as a health and nutrition coordinator for Chicanos Por La Causa and an epidemiologist for the Arizona Department of Health Services before beginning her teaching career at GCU three years ago.

She’s hoping public health will be the missing puzzle piece, too, for some of GCU’s students, who might not have known the field even existed until the pandemic struck. Ever since COVID-19 has bullied its way into the public consciousness, it has been go time for public health professionals.

At GCU, the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has offered a Master of Public Health degree since 2011 and, just a few months ago, added a new degree, a Bachelor of Science in Public Health.

“With this pandemic, public health has kind of exploded,” Ruelas said. “There’s this great need to further understand what public health is and how we can expand it.”

Veronica Perez said as senior managers in public health start to retire, entry-level jobs in the field will open, a trend she sees happening over the next five to 10 years.

Veronica Perez, lead faculty of the University’s Master of Public Health program, said it made sense to add a bachelor’s degree and create a feeder for the master’s program, which she describes as the “flagship degree” in that field.

Perez also notes that as public health employees in senior management start to retire and as middle managers start moving up to fill those senior positions, entry-level jobs will start to open. It's a trend she sees happening over the next five to 10 years.

“Because of that shift, the various sectors in public health would have a lot of those positions available for which a person with a bachelor’s degree would be well suited,” said Perez, who added that when she was an undergraduate, the kind of public health programs GCU offers just didn’t exist.

“I know for me, personally, when I stumbled on the Master of Public Health degree, a whole new world had opened up for me … it was like a light bulb went off. It was like, this is exactly it! I want to be able to improve people’s health, help improve systems and organizations to support health, but I didn’t know it had a name.”

And that’s been one of the big challenges when it comes to nudging students in the direction of public health.

It’s a career path that’s still little-known.

“Defining it can be challenging because it’s so many different things,” Perez said. “The difference between public health and other health care disciplines is that it solely focuses on prevention and health promotion.”

Unlike what a nurse or doctor does, which is focus on treating an individual who often is already sick, “we’re one step before that happens,” Perez said, adding that public health professionals often look at the community level – the population level – in preventing disease as opposed to looking at the individual level.

Public health professionals are focused on the community aspects of health, such as preventing the spread of disease.

They’re the ones during the pandemic who have communicated to the public: Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Wear a mask. Stand 6 feet apart.

It’s a field that involves collaboration with health professionals to contain and prevent the spread of disease and with scientists to identify treatments.

“You have this integrated approach where you work with medicine, so you work with federally qualified health clinics or other clinics and hospitals,” Ruelas said. “You’re that bridge between medicine and population health.”

One of the overriding misconceptions of public health is that you need to be a nurse, doctor, pharmacist or other type of clinician to work in the field.

That’s far from the truth.

Danielle Henderson (left) and Dulce Ruelas, Public Health faculty, said public health is a versatile and interdisciplinary field.

None of the core public health faculty members at GCU are clinicians. While Ruelas has been a social worker and epidemiologist, Perez has worked in tobacco prevention for the American Cancer Society and oversaw the chronic disease prevention programs for the Arizona Department of Health Services. And full-time Public Health faculty member Danielle Henderson worked in health care and education as a program evaluator and data analyst.

“You don’t need any type of clinical care background because it’s more of a community aspect,” Ruelas said.  “It just really depends on your passion of where you end up doing your practicum or where you end up doing a capstone or your thesis that drives you to the kind of work you want to do in the community.”

While most work in public heath does not require a clinical or advanced degree, “it depends on which sector or which discipline of public health you are going to be working in," Perez added. "So if you are heavily working in areas like scientific discovery, then, yes, you would need a doctoral degree in the biomedical sciences.”

Jobs in the field can range from working for federal assistance nutrition programs such as Women, Infants and Children to nonprofits such as Feeding America, the American Cancer Society and company wellness programs.

“I LOVE the fact that it is such a versatile and interdisciplinary field,” Perez said. “There’s no singular thing that defines what a public health professional does.

James Son, who will complete his Master of Public Health degree this fall, said he likes that he didn't need a clinical background to impact his community.

James Son, an online student from Honolulu who is slated to graduate from GCU in October with his Master of Public Health degree, received his undergraduate degree in exercise science from Northern Arizona University but decided to switch gears.

He liked that he didn’t need a clinical background to impact his community.

“As a former smoker for 10 years, I have a personal interest in tobacco and vape prevention,” he said. After graduating, he hopes to not just educate youth about the harmful effects of vaping and smoking, but effect policy to curb youth use and exposure.

While the pandemic affected his studies – he had to complete his practicum online – it did afford him one positive: His practicum preceptor recommended he apply to a COVID-19 contact tracing training program sponsored by the Hawaii State Department of Health, and he was accepted.

Another positive that has come out of the current health crisis: “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increased awareness of public health,” Henderson said. “The general public knows what public health is, what public health professionals do and why public health is needed.”

With that increased awareness, she said the field will “absolutely grow” and knows GCU will be at the forefront of that growth by educating the next generation of public health professionals.

“As a result of the pandemic, more individuals, communities and organizations will be asking, ‘How can we improve? How can we do better? How can we be better prepared?’” Henderson said.

“Public health professionals will have the answer.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Also in the series:

GCU Today: GCU pledges its allegiance with teachers

GCU Today: Fine Arts goes all out to improvise for students

GCU Today: Like good businesses, CCOB is learning, thriving

GCU Today: CSET programs earn prestigious accreditation

GCU Today: Initiative writes new chapter for doctoral learners

GCU Today: Social work educators master lessons in diversity

GCU Today: Honors College expands Student Advisory Board

GCU Today: New Theology website proves uncommonly valuable


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU faculty research published in JIR

GCU Today: Student’s deep dive highlights research colloquium

GCU Today: Residency changes unmasked in face of COVID-19


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