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Lessons in public health

MPH students create virtual workshop series for high schoolers

By Sam Uhlarik

For many students, public health isn’t a topic they spend much time exploring during high school. “I never had the opportunity in high school to explore public health topics," says Alyssa Stuck. "Since I wasn’t exposed, I didn’t realize the importance of public health until much later." Despite her late introduction to public health, Stuck is now pursuing her Master of Public Health (MPH) from Loyola University Chicago and leading a new workshop series focused on public health education outreach to local high schools. “Our students are creating opportunities to directly address this issue and improve awareness of this clearly vital discipline,” says Justin Harbison, faculty advisor for the graduate student organization Loyola University Public Health Association (LUPHA).

Together with fellow MPH student Travis Nielsen and LUPHA, Stuck developed the Loyola Educating about Public Health (LEAP) workshop series. After months of planning, LEAP held its first workshop in February 2021 with high school students from the Proviso Math and Science Academy. Throughout the workshop, students learned about the basics of public health and epidemiology through presentations, interactive quizzes, and small breakout sessions.

Going virtual

Initially, Stuck and Nielsen intended to hold the workshops in person; however, due to COVID-19, they were forced to adapt to a virtual format. “It’s a lot harder over Zoom to unmute yourself and speak out,” says Stuck. “You don’t know if you’re going to be interrupting someone, and you don’t have the social connectedness of people around you when you get an answer wrong.”

To overcome this challenge, Nielsen and Stuck focused their attention to engagement, impressing upon students the importance of participation and that it’s okay to get questions wrong. After the first workshop, any worries they had were quickly resolved. “As it turns out, students were very engaged,” says Nielsen. “They were happy to type things into the chat or unmute themselves to speak. I was so relieved to hear these kids participating.”

Meaningful conversations

While Nielsen and Stuck are proud of the students’ level of participation, they are most excited about the impact an understanding of public health may have on their future. “I think being a part of those conversations and questions is super meaningful,” says Stuck, highlighting the importance of learning about public health at a young age. “We’ve had students say, ‘I love public health,’ or ‘What you taught me changed what I think I want to do. Can you tell me more?’”

Stucks recalls some students commenting that they “never knew social characteristics had the biggest impact on a person’s health,” instead thinking genetics were the biggest determinants. “Watching that, for me, was really transformational,” says Stuck. “That recognition is the experience I had when I started my MPH, and they’re starting that when they’re sixteen.”

For Nielsen, it is being able to give back to the students that he finds most rewarding. “I grew up in an environment where I didn’t have anybody in my family who had gone to college, and a lot of kids from low-income communities aren’t taught about these career options,” says Nielsen. “I’m excited to give them something to look forward to in the future.”

LUPHA plans to host another LEAP workshop series in Fall 2021 with hopes to expand it in the future. Travis Nielsen, PhD, is the founder and president of LUPHA; Alyssa Stuck will serve as vice president during the next academic year.

Interested in a career in public health? Learn more about Loyola’s MPH and other public health degree options.