Yet for all its versatility, this undergraduate degree track, housed in Boise State’s Department of Community and Environmental Health, is relatively new to higher education. As department head Lillian Smith explained, “we’re only two years into having accredited undergrad programs in public health across the United States, even though this type of program has been in the works, nationally, for about a decade.”
She added: “Now the undergrad degree in public health is the fastest growing new degree in the U.S.”
Smith, who earned her master’s and doctorate in public health, joins Boise State from the east coast, where she helped launch a new school of public health at West Virginia University. Her professional focus has been on research and teaching others about community engagement in public health – specifically, how to help communities work together and respond to their own issues.
“The beauty of public health is that it’s the unifying factor for so many players – you’ve got city and county governments, health officials, businesses, universities and a whole host of other people all working together to address collective issues,” Smith said. “It can be anything from, ‘How do we clean up the river?’ to ‘How do we change people’s eating habits?’ That’s the exciting thing about public health; it can be both social and scientific.”
Boise State students interested in public health choose either a general program of study or one of two emphasis areas: environmental and occupational health, a math and science based emphasis that focuses on issues like industrial hygiene and how ventilation affects hospital health; and health education and promotion, which Smith explained is more behavioral based and focuses on social innovations and how systems and the built environment impact habits.
“In the general, you’re exposed to a little of both emphasis areas and could study business or non-profit management,” Smith added. “The bottom line is, there’s a place for everyone at the table if they’re interested in community health.”
The programs also act as a pipeline for students interested in pursuing graduate degrees in the field to the region’s graduate programs: Boise State’s master in health science and Idaho State University’s master in public health.
“We’re looking forward to collaborating with ISU and CWI, which is getting an associate’s program in public health,” Smith explained. “We want to think upstream: ‘How do we keep people from developing unhealthy habits?’ This is called primary prevention, as opposed to when you see a doctor when you’re sick, which is secondary prevention. We’re the group that wants to get ahead of the problem.”