Pandemic spreads surge of interest in public health programs

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Another thing also spreading during the pandemic is an interest in public health.

The USF College of Public Health (COPH) has seen a record increase in student applications to many of its degree programs.  

And, interest in public health programs is also being experienced nationally, according to David Hogeboom, assistant director of programs and outcomes in the Office of Academic and Student Affairs.

According to Hogeboom, as of early March 2021, the USF MPH program saw a 91 percent increase in the number of applications and a 168 percent increase for the MHA program.

Interest in doctoral degrees is up too, with a 61 percent increase in applications for PhD programs in public health and a 51 percent increase for the DrPH program.

“I think the pandemic, ironically, did more to help the public understand what the field of public health does every single day,” said Dr. Ellen Daley, professor and associate dean of research and practice. “I used to think that the forensic detective dramas on TV probably lead to a huge increase in forensic science programs – and now, because of this unbelievable disease, people have a far greater understanding of disease prevention, epidemiology, disease surveillance and use of data. The CDC, state and local health departments and public health research all are now more daily realities for Americans, and that translates into interest in public health careers.”  

USF College of Public Health alumna Linh Duong, who graduated in Spring 2020, volunteered with the Florida Department of Health at the onset of the pandemic conducting surveillance and contact tracing. (Photo courtesy of Duong)

Daley said the USF COPH has also added new sections of public health undergraduate courses to meet the increased demand.

The number of students registering for undergraduate courses in public health is also up from last year, seeing an increase of more than 3,700 new registrations for courses for the 2020-2021 academic year.

While the exact cause for the increase cannot be pinpointed, all signs point to the pandemic.

“Every day COVID was in the news. Public health practitioners were doing interviews, writing blogs and posting on social media,” said Dr. Janice Zgibor, professor and associate dean for academic affairs. “Additionally, the mitigation efforts promoted through media sources introduced foundational public health prevention strategies. This attention to public health basics, in addition to the expertise, sparked curiosity about the field.”

She said the USF COPH is well-equipped to handle the increased interest.

“The COPH has had online programs since 1996. With that history of expertise, we are more than prepared to address the needs of learners from all over the world,” Zgibor said. “Our attention to quality online education makes the COPH the right choice for students to design a program that works for their schedules and needs.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, students were also at the forefront, helping to bring the degree programs to the spotlight as well, according to Daley.

USF College of Public Health students Daniel Hutchinson, Will Steck, and Mimi Cao helped to address the COVID-19 pandemic by volunteering at the Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn)

“Our students were among the first to work as contact tracers back in March, April and May [2020], when the pandemic was just starting to spike in Florida. Their professionalism and passion for public health was evident everywhere they were deployed,” Daley said.

Zgibor said she’s noticed a common theme from students choosing to pursue public health.  

“The most frequent thing I hear from students regarding going into public health is helping people,” Zgibor said. “Students strive to make an impact on health and through public health education, we have the opportunity to do that. Public health and the importance of being prepared has been at the forefront of messaging. I believe, at least I want to believe, that preparedness will increase demand for those trained in public health.”


Story by Anna Mayor USF College of Public Health