The name of Dr. Alba Diaz is never very far from the conversation when speaking to faculty members about the Bachelor of Science in Public Health program at National University. She is described by one of her colleagues as “the embodiment of public health.” It’s easy to see why. Given her experience and commitment to education, there is no one better qualified when it comes to answering the question, “What Will You Learn With a Public Health BS?”
On hearing the glowing endorsement by her colleagues, Diaz offers a slightly more modest review of her incredible career in public health saying simply, “I’ve been in this field for very long and I love it.”
Diaz believes that public health professionals have a very specific mission in life.
“It’s all about prevention,” says Diaz. “It’s about making sure that people are well informed to make decisions that empower them to take care of their own health.”
While the work has a singular goal, there are many routes to achieving better public health outcomes for a community, on a local or global scale.
“We do this with a multi-disciplinary approach,” says Diaz. “We don’t work in isolation. We have to work with other disciplines depending on the specific needs in the area of operation. So we can talk about global health, we can talk about epidemiology (a branch of medicine dealing with the incidence, distribution, and control of diseases and other factors relating to health), we can talk about vital statistics and mental health, counseling for the prevention of drugs and alcohol, reproductive health, nutrition — the list is very long.”
A Passion for Public Health
Diaz’s passion for public health was forged in the field of tropical medicine, where she enjoyed a 22-year career working for the United Nations in West Africa and Asia.
“My undergraduate degree was in anthropology and sociology,” says Diaz. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ so I chose public health and I obtained my master’s. When I was doing that work, I felt that it was very important to get into some form of medicine — so I went to study for my doctorate in tropical medicine. I was then invited by the United Nations to help develop public health programs in Guinea-Bissau, a Portuguese speaking country in West Africa, where we often had to develop public health programs from the ground up.”
While working in Guinea-Bissau, Diaz had the opportunity to work in a number of challenging projects, including programs to tackle persistent and debilitating diseases.
“After working there for three years, I was invited to be the Director of Eradication of Tropical Diseases with a particular focus on Dracunculiasis,” says Diaz.
Dracunculiasis, also known as Guinea Worm Disease (GWD), is an infection caused by a parasitic worm which can grow up to 800 mm in length and enters the human body by drinking water containing the Guinea worm larvae.
“There is no cure for Dracunculiasis,” says Diaz. “Everything has to be done through prevention, education, and raising awareness — so that was the perfect combination of public health and tropical medicine.”
Public Health in the United States
According to Diaz, the strategy of prevention through education is equally as relevant in the United States today as it was then in West Africa. This is something that students on the bachelor of science in public health learn to focus on from the very start of the program.
“Public health is the science of preventing disease,” says Diaz. “We do this through organized efforts and informed choices in society, public health organizations, and even private institutions. We start with the student and continue from there.”
Getting students involved is key to making sure the public health message goes viral, thanks to the passion of students who want to spread the word.
“Students see that by taking this class, they are not only going to take care of themselves, but they are also going to be much more aware of how to take care of their families and communities,” says Diaz. “It expands.”
While the average U.S. citizen is not going to be exposed to tropical diseases like Dracunculiasis, Diaz is quick to point out that there are many other persistent and equally damaging public health crises closer to home.
“We have a big controversy about vaccines and that is a serious one that we need to attend to as soon as possible,” says Diaz. “In public health, we need to concentrate on reducing the incidences of disease, disabilities, and other conditions. Public health programs providing vaccinations have been a huge success in promoting public health.”
Greater public health awareness isn’t just about improving the health of local populations. There is also a positive economic impact.
“The public health programs providing vaccinations have made huge successes in promoting public health and have demonstrated that prevention is more cost-effective than a cure. But this good work is being threatened by misinformation.”
As such, Diaz also stresses the importance of lobbying the government to make changes that benefit public health.
“We have to keep working very hard in terms of policymaking,” says Diaz. “It took 60 years of research before policy caught up with what scientific research showed about the effects of smoking. Tobacco control could have been started many, many years ago.”
Diaz now sees similar patterns with the impact of tobacco on public health and the control of sugar in processed foods and sweetened beverages.
“I was very involved with tobacco control back in the 70s and 80s,” says Diaz. “Now, I am very involved when it comes to high levels of sugar in sweetened beverages. There is increasing evidence that this is linked with obesity — not only in young adults but especially in children. It has been said that this generation might not be able to see their children grow and be healthy if we don’t do something about this.”
Diaz believes that high levels of sugar consumption constitutes a very real public health crisis which can impact the future prosperity of the country.
“What do we gain from educating children if many of them are already suffering from diabetes, high levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity — the list is very long!” says Diaz.
Public Health Classes
The broad nature of the scope of public health is reflected in the diverse range of classes offered in the Bachelor of Science in Public Health program.
Students in the program study topics ranging from personal health to psychology, nutrition, drug use, human sexuality, and human anatomy.
Students need to complete four core requirement classes in culture and health, epidemiology, chronic and communicable disease, and health behavior before moving on to the additional courses required for the degree. These include classes on environmental health, injury prevention, public health and physical activity, public health communications and advocacy, and preparedness and disaster management.
Developing Existing Public Health Skills
Many students come to the Bachelor of Science in Public Health program with prior experience in the health sector. This experience is valued and may even be credited as part of the program.
“The majority of my students come from the military,” says Diaz. “Many of them have a strong background in health. They often learn a range of skills when they are deployed but perhaps lack the formal education to build a career once they leave the military. What we need to do is capitalize on those skills and recognize and validate this prior knowledge by giving them credit for the skills they already possess.”
Diaz adds, “This is a strategy that was implemented by our current Dean, paying special attention to existing skills and not placing the students who came from the military with years and years’ of experience on the same level as students who have just come from high school. It makes a huge difference and it motivates them.”
Making Positive Changes
But it’s not just military students in National University’s public health courses that have impressed Diaz.
Recently, one student in particular in the program stood out to Diaz, initially for all the wrong reasons.
“I had this student who came to class 15 minutes late,” says Diaz. “I approached him and said, ‘I don’t want to leave any of my students behind, so would you be so kind as to try to be here when we start at 5.30?’”
The student apologized and told Diaz that he was late because he was a construction worker and was currently working two jobs. He then went on to tell Diaz that he came from a long line of construction workers, dating back to his great-grandparents and that he was attending the public health program because he wanted to break that cycle. He had seen his family suffer from issues relating to stress and other occupational health factors associated with the construction industry.
Opening up further to Diaz, he told her that National University was giving him the opportunity to facilitate a change in his life due to the flexibility available in the schedule and the affordability of tuition costs when compared to other institutions.
By attending classes at National University, Diaz believes that this student was not only making a considerable investment in his education and future career but also making significant improvements to his own health and wellbeing.
“When you are happy with your job and what you do — doors open,” says Diaz. “If you are sick and tired at the place of your work, the place where you spend eight hours of your day, that seems very expensive to me. You are paying with your own health. With stress, you live unhappily. How can you live a life like that?”
The Flexibility and Reach of Online Degrees
The flexibility of National University’s online degree programs helps students who would normally not be able to attend class due to a job and/or family commitments, work towards degrees like the Bachelor of Science in Public Health.
National University’s unique rolling four-week class structure, enables students to dedicate their studies to a single class at a time and it means that potential students are never more than 30 days away from the start of a program.
Diaz is keen to highlight that just because a class is online, it doesn’t mean the program is any easier or lacks credibility.
“Both our online and onsite classes have exactly the same syllabus and exactly the same content,” says Diaz. “It’s thanks to technology that we can do that.”
Diaz explains that it is vital that online students engage with their fellow students in the same way as they would in a traditional classroom because this helps them develop the skills they will later rely on in the field of public health.
“In my online classes, they always have group projects because I want them to connect,” says Diaz. “They say, ‘Why? I would prefer to do it individually.’ I tell them it’s because when they go out there I do not want them to be deprived of a skill that they will need. You need to work with others. You are not going to work in isolation. So it is better if you get the skills while you are attending school and one way to do it is working in groups and connecting for different projects.”
Encouraging greater engagement between the students and faculty members is incredibly important to Diaz. This communication was one of the things that attracted her to teaching after spending so many years working in the field.
“I worked for the United Nations for 22 years,” says Diaz. “When it was time for my son to do his graduate studies we came back to California and I decided I wanted to teach. My motivation was simple. I wanted to have intelligent conversations with our younger generation.”
Diaz is particularly excited about the opportunities online classes gives her to reach students regardless of their location.
“One of the greatest things with online classes is you can reach so many students around the world,” says Diaz. “I have students now who connect in South America, Switzerland, Sweden, and Spain. I have another student in the military, he is in Afghanistan. There is a big difference in time, so I try to be very flexible. I can have classes late in the evening and sessions early in the morning. This is the real plus of the online classes. We can reach so many people out there. We overcome barriers and frontiers and it is amazing what they can do.”
Citing the success of the online degree program, Diaz points to many of the achievements her students have made.
“Many of my students have participated in different National University scholarships and some of them have won first prizes,” says Diaz. “It’s been very, very motivating for them to show their work and an increasing number of these students have been from the online class.”
Career Opportunities in Public Health
There is a diverse range of careers available to students in public health following graduation.
While many students will enter the program with a clear idea of their future career paths, others will find their inspiration while attending class. Before graduating, students are required to complete a field practicum where they can put their newfound public health skills into practice in the real world.
“Their placement is a great opportunity for them to decide what path they want to follow,” says Diaz. “Some are very strong in epidemiology, so it’s good to place them with an epidemiologist that can give them the tools before they make their decision. For someone interested in education, I have connections with supervisors and places at different schools where they could do the practicum in different areas.”
The practicum can also open up opportunities in areas which students might not have previously considered.
“We didn’t have a strong interest in the role of public health inspectors,” says Diaz. “So I worked with the department of public health connecting them with the students for their practicum. Working with a professional in this field encouraged many students to aspire to follow a future career path as a public health inspector.”
Healthy Career Prospects
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, the job outlook for careers in public health sector is growing at a rate of 16% — much faster than the average rate across all occupations. The national median wage for community health workers in California is $49,2600 which is 16% higher than the national median wage of $38,640.
The program prepares students for a variety of entry-level public health jobs in a wide spectrum of health-related agencies including government health agencies, nonprofit and voluntary health organizations, community agencies, education, business, and industry. Graduates of the program become eligible to sit for the Certified Health Education Specialists (CHES) exam through the National Commission on Health Education Credentialing Inc.
However, Diaz believes that a career in public health is not just about collecting your salary check at the end of each month — it’s also an incredibly rewarding profession.
“I think that the greatest pay is the enormous satisfaction that you get from the job,” says Diaz. “It’s a very gratifying job because you see changes. You see families getting better, you touch lives, you see that there is room for transformation and that you can bring an impact in any area. So it’s very, very rewarding.”
Diaz is constantly reminded of the impact she has personally made in public health by her former students.
“I was once in Northern California and this lady came to me and said ‘Dr. Diaz, don’t you remember me?’ To be honest I didn’t — but I knew that she must have been in one of my classes.”
The lady went on to explain how Diaz’s influence had turned her life around and helped her avoid a life of drug addiction. She is now working as the director of an emergency room and helping to create educational programs for young mothers, pregnant women, adolescents, and seniors.
“That was very rewarding for me and there have been many other examples just like that throughout my career,” says Diaz.
Launch Your New Career with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health
If you want to make a change in the lives of people in your local community or even further afield, a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from National University can help you launch a career with the potential to make a real difference.
For more information about the Bachelor of Science in Public Health, or to arrange an appointment to speak with an advisor about National University’s public health courses, visit the program page on our website.