Augusten Burroughs writes in his memoir, Dry, which focuses on his alcoholism and subsequent recovery, “When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.”
If you take this rather eloquent idea about an individual’s health and apply it to a wider group of people, you can start to understand the importance of good public health; it enables individuals and communities to prosper and lead longer, happier and more productive lives. Therefore, there is a solid argument to be made that good public health should be prioritized as both a moral and an economic asset.
We spoke to Dr. Ritika Bhawal, academic program director for National University’s Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BPH) about career opportunities available for students with a public health degree, as well as how good public health practices can transform lives.
The Definition of Public Health
Public health covers a vast range of topics and issues, so it is helpful to have a clear understanding of what exactly “public health” means to students in a bachelor of public health program. Dr. Bhawal refers to the formal definition determined by the American Public Health Association.
“…Public health is defined as the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting human health through organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations (public and private), communities and individuals,” she explains.
While this definition provides a “scientific” introduction to the field of public health, Bhawal prefers to take a more “human” approach. She explains how a medical provider treats disease and injury one patient at a time; but in public health, it’s about preventing disease and injury for a specific population.
“Public health basically promotes and protects people and the communities where we live, where we learn, where we work, and where we play,” she says. “We promote wellness, we provide and assure the conditions in which people are as healthy as possible. So that for me is public health.”
The Challenges of Promoting Better Public Health
According to Bhawal, it can be challenging for public health professionals to encourage individuals and communities-at-large to change the way they think and act to the benefit of their health.
“A very important part of our job is to modify behaviors,” says Bhawal. “You can recognize how challenging it is to change behaviors, to get people out of their comfort zone, to break myths, to break stereotypes.”
Challenging people’s perceptions, prejudices, and beliefs is something Bhawal tackles head-on in her public health classes. She describes a human sexuality course, filled mostly with students ranging from 30 to 50 years old.
They are coming to the classroom with some long-held beliefs, often based on rigid stereotypes, and here I am challenging them,” she says. “So, I think modifying behaviors, modifying the way people think, and getting them out of their comfort zone is the most challenging part of promoting public health.”
Bhawal highlights how an individual’s behavior based on specific beliefs, myths even, can have a detrimental impact on public health.
“We’ve seen how there is currently a strong opposition to the concept of vaccinations. All these years, we’ve always sworn by vaccinations and now suddenly there is a group of people protesting against their use,” says Bhawal.
Changing Perceptions About Public Health
To encourage her students to explore ideas beyond their comfort zones, Bhawal does exactly that: introduces them to situations that may be completely alien to their way of thinking. For example, she invited a group of refugees and immigrants from Syria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other regions to talk about domestic violence.
“I wanted my students to hear from these women about their experiences,” Bhawal says, adding that it was interesting and enlightening to hear the women talk about domestic violence as something so normal.“To quote one of the women, she said: ‘Oh, if the food is not cooked well, if the salt is missing, my husband slaps me, but that’s OK because it helps me to do better,’” recalls Bhawal.
The reaction of Bhawal’s students said it all: they were shocked by her story.
“A lot of the things we take for granted here in the United States are not necessarily the norm for someone coming from a different culture,” says Bhawal. “How do you deal with that?”
Bhawal’s approach of bringing in guest speakers aims to open minds and start conversations that lead to questioning of myths, stereotypes, and beliefs that may impact any individual community’s health.
Making Informed Choices Toward Better Public Health
Improving public health could mean educating the public — and encouraging people to talk about the issues in their own lives. However, Bhawal explains that helping people understand they have a voice and can make choices that impact their wellbeing isn’t always so cut and dry. And that lack of communication can lead to serious consequences.
Bhawal shares a challenge she had while working with a group of women with developmental disabilities; too often with this population, parents, teachers, and caregivers, are reluctant to talk about sexual and reproductive health. The results can be heart-wrenching.
“One woman came up to me,” recalls Bhawal, “and in a very matter of fact way said, ‘I just have one question: Am I allowed to say no?’”
Bhawal said she didn’t get the context at first, so she asked the woman what she meant. Sadly, it turned out that the woman had been put in a very vulnerable situation by a caregiver who was trying to take advantage of her. The answer is what put Bhawal on her path to creating educational intervention programs for women with developmental disabilities.
“That’s when it just hit me so hard,” she recalls. “These are basic things that we think people should know but nobody really talks about it the way it should be talked about.” Reflecting on this story, Bhawal admitted that this case wasn’t unusual in the public health field.
“The issues, the challenges; they are really filled with a lot of personal stories that motivate people to make that change,” says Bhawal.
The Bachelor of Public Health Program
According to Bhawal, National’s Bachelor of Public Health (BPH) degree program can provide a springboard to propel a student into a wide range of careers.
“In public health, we have microbiologists who work to help find vaccines for malaria and other diseases, behavioral scientists who research ways to discourage populations from smoking, we have environmental health scientists working to discover which foods prevent cancer, and then we have health policy analysts who evaluate health insurance,” says Bhawal.
Continuing on about how diverse the field is, Bhawal explains students could choose to focus on a specific health issue, or they “could dabble in every aspect of population health and community health.” A Bachelor of Public Health can also serve as a foundation for a career in nursing or another clinical field.
And, the good news is, demand for jobs in the public health sector is buoyant. The Bureau of Labour Statistics suggests that the need for health educators and community health workers is expected to increase by 16% through 2026, which is well above the national average growth rate of 7%. “So there is variety, there is job security, there is growth,” says Bhawal. “And if I had to sum it up, a career in public health really allows you to make a difference where it matters.”
Is There a Typical Bachelor of Public Health Student?
Bhawal says she sees two types of students drawn to the bachelor of public health degree program. One group has very specific career goals, such as advancing their education, perhaps eventually studying for a Ph.D. and maybe one day becoming a professor. Others might graduate with their BPH degree and start their careers in the nonprofit world or serve as a health educator.
The second group simply has a desire to make a difference; maybe they were searching for colleges in San Diego with programs geared toward a helping profession, and they found National’s public health degree. These students might not always know what to expect when they start, but Bhawal says, “As they go through the program, they realize their passion for a specific issue and want to work in that field.”
Inspired by Personal Experiences in Public Health
Many students are drawn towards a career in public health through personal experiences, such as losing a close family member or friend to a particular health condition.
Among the colleges in San Diego, National University is home to perhaps the largest military student community (both veterans and serving personnel). This, says Bhawal, brings another level of experience to the public health classes.
“The things that they have personally experienced while deployed around the globe triggers their passion for public health,” she says. “We are a veteran-founded university so we really have strong support resources for the military students — that attracts them, and they do really well here.”
The Flexibility of the Online Degree Program
Many students are attracted to National University because of the flexibility of the online degree program, which follows a unique four-week class structure. This allows students to study for one class at a time. The convenience of the online lectures and course materials also means they can fit in schoolwork around work and family commitments. But just because online degrees are flexible and convenient doesn’t mean it’s an easier option. Online classes require commitment and dedication from students if they are to succeed.
National University has been a pioneer in online education, and Bhawal says she and her colleagues on the faculty have embraced this medium: so much so, they consider it more normal than traditionally delivered classes.
Bhawal explains how the online environment changes the way she engages with her students and the challenges and opportunities this presents. For example, in an on-site class, she can rely on non-verbal cues. “I’d be looking at their body language, looking at their expressions, looking at how my group is responding to what I say and that would help me modify or tweak the information to make sure it’s being well received,” she says. “I don’t get to see or rely on those in my online class. A lot of students keep their cameras off, so it’s more challenging to know if what I am saying is well received or not.”
However, the “anonymity” offered in an online environment can encourage students to share more of their personal experiences and feelings. This is particularly true when discussing difficult issues like sexual health or domestic violence where students might feel embarrassed or reluctant to contribute to a more public conversation.
For Bhawal, the online environment just adds to the whole experience of education. “I love teaching,” says Bhawal. “I look at it as a way to challenge myself to engage my audience whether its onsite or online.”
Bhawal’s love of teaching at National University encourages her to push her own boundaries. She says class after class, she’s been inspired by her students.
“We have adult learners and people from the military coming to the classroom and bringing their experiences, their life-lessons,” Bhawal says. “When I listen to their stories and I learn of their experiences, and their challenges, I am inspired.”
Bhawal believes the life experiences many adult learners bring with them into the classroom has incredible value and helps to enrich the program.
“A lot of them, to be honest, have had way more experience in specific fields than I do,” says Bhawal. “When I hear their stories, it inspires me to read more, it inspires me to educate myself a little more, it inspires me to really start digging out information so that I am better prepared for the next class.”
She adds, “The most inspiring thing is to see these adult learners giving themselves a second chance. They’re starting afresh at the age of 40 or 50, and kudos to that. When I hear this, I remind myself that there is so much more for me to do. I cannot stop because if they haven’t stopped at the age of 45 — why should I? That’s so motivating for me.”
Make a Difference
If you have the desire to make a difference and improve the quality of health in your local or even the global community, a bachelor of public health could open the doors to help you facilitate change. To learn more or to tell us about your interest in the online degree, visit the Bachelor of Science in Public Health program page.