They didn’t go to graduate school to make history, but 20 graduate students at UTC this fall have earned themselves both a spot in university history and the nickname “2020 Pioneers.”
More than half are from out-of-state, including three international students, and all are members of the inaugural class from the UTC Master of Public Health (MPH) program that launched in fall 2018.
Envisioned for years and finally made possible when the last hurdle—final approval by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges—was cleared in June, and the goal number for incoming students was reached by August. How?
Hard work, says Marisa Colston, head of UTC’s Department of Health and Human Performance, which offers the new graduate program.
“Initially, we thought we’d have six to eight months to develop the first cohort of students but, with the much shorter window, the MPH program administrators had to fan out to college campuses, walking door-to-door, meeting and talking to numerous people in a systematic and grassroots effort,” Colston says. “Otherwise, I’m convinced we would not have hit those numbers, especially with high-quality students.”
As work continued to achieve program approval, build awareness and recruit students on parallel tracks, so did the process of hiring someone to oversee the new program. Mark Stoutenberg began serving as program director in January 2018.
“We’ve been told to take these 20 students and do a great job with them, and we will continue building on a great foundation,” Stoutenberg says. “For us, this is an exciting opportunity to get to build something of real quality.”
The UTC MPH program features a concentration in chronic disease control and prevention, a rapidly growing global health concern. Another intentional focus in the program is student diversity, particularly in undergraduate backgrounds and career and research interests.
“We thought strength would come from diversity in the types of students, and to that we can now add strength in the richness of their diverse places of origin: One student is from Detroit; another is from Queens; another is from India, and several are from around Tennessee,” Stoutenberg says.
“Their undergraduate degrees range from nutrition to public health, anthropology to sociology. The faculty have been thoroughly impressed by the diversity of comments in classes. There are so many varied perspectives and cultures represented.”
What made such a variety of people willing to step into both graduate school and a brand-new master’s degree program at UTC?
“Reputation of the faculty,” Colston says. “We didn’t really know what to expect in terms of application numbers. As it turned out, we could have gone higher than 20, but we need faculty dedicated solely to this program to be able to meet the rigors of student advisement and mentoring. Currently, we are pulling faculty from other programs, which then creates gaps in those areas that must be filled,” Colston says.
“We’ve had incredible cooperation and support internally from the department, Dean (Valerie) Rutledge ’74, ’79 of the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies and from Chancellor Steven Angle, to name just a few. We also have experienced strong external support from numerous community partners. Witnessing how it has all come together has been quite special. We are already working on plans to grow as we transition our dietetics program to the graduate level, where it will be offered as a track in the MPH, hopefully in the fall of 2020.”
In addition to the program director and faculty who Colston says have worked tirelessly to pull the program together, she praised Program Manager Francia Portacio for her dedication to the program and its successful recruitment efforts.
So what comes after grad school for the 2020 Pioneers? A wide and growing array of career opportunities.
MPH graduates are found in healthcare policy development, hospital administration, health communication or education, emergency preparedness, risk management and program planning, infectious disease prevention, research and more.
“I’m willing to bet that many of the students will go on to careers that expand beyond public health,” Stoutenberg says. “The field isn’t getting smaller, and all data points to a shortage of public health experts. Public health is growing as a field, and the future is interdisciplinary in everything we do. It intrigues people and offers a lot of opportunity to be in health-related fields without having to work in clinical practice.”