Published May 28, 2021
With the need for public health professionals more urgent than ever, a program at UB aims to capture the imaginations, early on, of people who might one day join the field — and make it more diverse.
Public Health Pathways Academy is an effort among the School of Public Health and Health Professions (SPHHP), Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center (AHEC) and HOPE Buffalo/CAI. The course is designed to introduce 10th- and 11th-graders to the world of public health and to their career options in the field. Its most important goal: to improve diversity among students seeking careers in public health and the health professions through admission to UB.
“Even some of our incoming freshmen haven’t been exposed to what public health is, so Pathways gives students a starting point — what public health is, how broad it is. We also wanted them to establish a connection to UB,” says Adam Graczyk, clinical assistant professor of community health and health behavior, who oversees the course.
Students are awarded one college credit for taking part in a program that features lectures and demonstrations by faculty and public health organizations, group activities and student-led presentations. This year’s group of 14 future public-health pros came from public high schools in Buffalo, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls. All are members of underrepresented minorities, or those who would be the first in their family to attend college.
The genesis of Pathways was a public health summer camp that SPHHP and AHEC formerly offered. SPHHP proposed the idea of making the learning more rigorous and offering the college credit. AHEC agreed, and Pathways was born.
During the seven-week course, students learned about epidemiology, health disparities, disease prevention, exercise science, nutrition and other disciplines. They also received information helpful in preparing for college, such as how to write personal statements and common questions on college applications.
Mining his background in improv, Graczyk involved students each class session in activities to set the tone at the start of the day and boost energy at the end of the day.
The activities “help establish a welcoming, open environment,” Graczyk explains. “In improv, there’s no such thing as failing, and I try to bring that into the classroom.”
In their post-course survey responses, students said they greatly valued hearing from various guest speakers that visited Pathways virtually. Those included SPHHP health professions and public health faculty; current SPHHP students and alumni; and staff from the Erie County Department of Health on Narcan training, Hope Buffalo speakers on sex education, and UB on how to apply, financial aid and other admissions topics.
The final day of the course featured — what else? — final projects. Students took a photo in their community that illustrated a public health problem, then did research and talked about the issues, ultimately offering their ideas for public health interventions that could solve the problem. They also connected with SPHHP Student Ambassadors, who served as mentors on the projects.
“The final project really gave students a personal connection to an issue and to their community,” Graczyk says.
Brittany Mitchell, Erie Niagara AHEC program manager, agrees. “The Public Health Pathways Academy was an amazing opportunity for high school students to gain exposure to the field of public health, and the impact it has on the communities they live in,” Mitchell says. “Because of this program, these students are better equipped to address public health concerns within their own communities, as well as take that knowledge and share with their friends and loved ones.
“We look forward to continuing this partnership and creating more public health advocates in the Buffalo community.”
Among the hoped-for outcomes for Pathways participants are their greater knowledge of public health topics and future acceptance into college and health-related programs. Course survey results showed that some of those outcomes seem likely.
“I feel like every aspect of the program helped me … I wasn’t sure how I would fit into the medical field and public health,” one student wrote in her evaluation of the course. “I came in not knowing much… [but] they touched on so many different topics that you can choose from if you were to be in public health. It all played a huge part in my thinking for the future.”
Another participant wrote: “I learned that there’s more to public health than what you may think … that if you like making a difference in someone else’s life, public health is something you should definitely look into.”