Kent State is Pioneer in Rigorous, Yet Flexible, BSPH Degree

Traditionally, to punch your ticket to work professionally in public health, you had to have a master’s degree.  Historically, many colleges of public health offered only graduate degrees.
But barriers are coming down.  Entry-level jobs that required a MPH increasingly are open to holders of exceptional bachelor’s degrees, like the one offered by Kent State’s College of Public Health.  And that’s certainly good news for undergraduate students looking to find rewarding work in emergency management, disease investigation, health services administration, occupational health and safety, environmental risk assessment, global health and other exciting areas of public health.
“When we founded the college in 2009, we were determined to offer a bachelor’s degree, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees,” explains Dean Sonia Alemagno.  “The undergraduate program was built from the ground up with a true public health curriculum,” she says.  “Our undergraduates are full members of the college, and their core study is public health,” she says.
Enrollment is a robust 709 for the current semester, a 20-percent increase over the prior year and one of the largest undergraduate public health enrollments in the United States.  “For a five-year-old college, this is remarkable,” says Peggy Shaffer-King, the college’s newly appointed director of student services.  “It underscores the need for the program and the many job opportunities in the field of public health,” she says. 

A Degree of Quality

The BSPH program ensures that students are exposed to all five disciplines of public health (biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, health policy and management and social and behavioral science).  The core public health courses taken by all BSPH students provide the foundational framework for public health theory and practice.  This core of courses also constitutes a public health minor and a certificate program for non-degree students.
There are seven areas of concentration:  allied health, environmental/occupational health and safety, environmental health sciences, global health, health promotion and education, health services administration and pre-medicine.  About two-thirds of the BSPH seekers are enrolled in health services administration and health promotion and education.
Kent State’s BSPH is offered either as a traditional four-year, face-to-face academic program – or fully online.  The degree was, in fact, Kent State’s first fully online bachelor’s degree, another testament to the college being a pioneer.  While all of the university’s eight campuses offer undergraduate public health courses, almost 90 percent of students are enrolled on the Kent Campus.  Some 10 percent of students are from outside of Ohio.
“The online program is ideal for allied health professionals who hold associate’s degrees and would like to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a shortened timeframe,” explains says Cheryl Laubacher, coordinator, academic recruitment and retention.  “We not only will accept credits earned in their associate’s degree program, but will grant up to 12 earned credit hours to students who hold a state-recognized license, such as a respiratory therapist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, chemical dependency counselor, dietitian or physician assistant,” she says.
The program is flexible in other important ways as well.  While a full-time student course load is four to five classes, Kent State’s online BSPH offers two types of sections for each course:  15 weeks and 7.5 weeks.  “We’ve discovered that online learners find it much easier to take two classes for a shorter length of time, rather than four classes for a longer period,” says Laubacher.  “The 7.5-week concentrated alternative allows students to have fewer things to focus on, while still completing four courses a semester,” she says.
Unlike graduate students, who are advised by faculty members, public health undergraduates are supported by two professional advisors, Jennifer L. Noble and Ólöf R.Thórdardóttir, who work with students from admission through graduation.  “There’s a distinct advantage to having professional advisors,” explains Laubacher.  “They’re entirely dedicated to working with students on their academic schedules and career plans,” she says.  “They engage students early to ensure they remain on track with their programs toward timely graduation,” she says.  In addition to the advisors, undergraduates also can avail themselves of the Public Health Ambassadors, a duo of retired health commissioners, William J. Franks, BS ’69, and Matthew A. Stefanak III, who hold office hours on campus to counsel students about job, internship and practicum opportunities.
National assurance of quality for undergraduates is on the horizon.  The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) recently has decided that it will accredit bachelor’s programs, and the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) has established model competencies for accreditation.  “We hope to be among the first undergraduate programs in the country to receive CEPH accreditation,” says Alemagno.

Recent Graduates – and Their Employers –Praise the BSPH

Kent State has conferred 200 BSPH degrees since 2009, when the program started.  Samantha Mellott, BSPH ’13, works in air quality monitoring for Summit County Public Health.  Mellott, who graduated in December, had an internship with the county which transitioned to full-time employment in air quality management in early January.  Her duties are focused on particulate monitoring.  “Several times a week, I visit seven different machines in four locations in Summit, Portage and Medina counties,” Mellott says.  “I check to ensure they are operating correctly, and I change out the filters, which are sent to a State of Ohio Environmental Protection Agency lab in Cincinnati and evaluated to measure air quality in the area,” she explains. 
“The BSPH program gave me the big picture,” says Mellott.  “Before, I only ever worried about myself and those I immediately know.  “But through my education, I now focus on our country’s population and global health.  “There’s a heck of a lot more problems than you’d think,” she observes.
Mellott’s supervisor is Sam Rubens, BS ’94, administrator of the Akron Regional Air Quality Management District.  “Samantha’s responsible for our fine-particulate-matter monitoring network, overseeing the data capture and accountable for some $125,000 worth of equipment,” he observes.  “The Kent State interns and graduates have a good head start knowing regulations and terminology.  They understand both the big picture and the details of environmental health and are knowledgeable about how food, water, solid waste, vectors, air quality and water quality are all are tied together,” he says.  “I’m impressed with the program – it’s a very good starting point for people to come into the field.”

Nathan King, BSPH ’13, also works for Summit County Public Health, but in water quality inspection.  He joined the organization after two summer seasons working in mosquito control and two off seasons interning in water quality management.  A typical day involves inspecting waste-water treatment systems of businesses and monitoring storm water outfalls.  “When septic systems discharge into road ditches, eventually the water collects and is carried into naturally flowing water sources such as streams, and this is called an outfall,” King explains. “We take water samples to test for fecal coliform bacteria, and if counts are high, we broaden our inspection of the area to determine the cause,” he explains.  King admits that inclement weather slows inspections down in the winter, and his focus turns to report preparation and administrative tasks.
King sees the relationship between the College of Public Health and Summit County Public Health as a key to success.  “If you’re interested in working for a health department as a career, do all in your power to get an internship or a mosquito control summer position.  This has worked for so many people, either getting a job with Summit County after graduation or building relationships that are well-respected around the area, as there is not much that will look better on your resume in a public health sense than working for this organization,” he believes.
Catherine Bevan, associate health educator and Medical Reserve Corps coordinator, Lake County General Health District, will receive her BSPH degree in May, completing the fully online program.  “Without the online degree, it would have been impossible for me to juggle college, work and a family,” says Bevan, age 45 and mother of five, who adds, “It was my turn to go back to college.”  She joined the health district in 2012 as a voluntary intern and transitioned to part-time employment even before completing her degree, because of her strong credentials.  

Says her boss, Ron Graham, deputy health commissioner, “We’ve been increasingly impressed with entry-level College of Public Health trained individuals and have hired multiple new graduates.  They have the skill set we need, and we’re pleased to utilize Kent State students as volunteer interns and employees and to be a site and preceptor for their capstone projects.  Like Cathy, they are energetic and committed, and I’ve been impressed with the passion they display for public health,” he says.
Bevan has a two-part job.  She is helping to coordinate the health district’s accreditation process with the Public Health Accreditation Board, and she coordinates the county’s Medical Reserve Corps, a group of 126 medical and nonmedical volunteers who assist with natural or manmade emergency situations as backup to first responders.
“Many of the things I’ve done as part of my coursework are directly related to what I’ve been doing in my job, such as grant writing, marketing and health education,” Bevan says.  “The courses are ideal for an entry-level public health professional,” she declares.  “Buckle down, because what is taught is important and does translate into what you will be doing on your job.”  After taking the summer off, Bevan will start Kent State’s MPH program next fall.
JoAnne Boulter, AS ’01, BSPH ’12, joined Cleveland Clinic in its receiving department shortly after earning her degree two years ago.  While starting in front-line customer service to “get a foot in the door,” she quickly was promoted when the departmental supervisor position came open. “I had the experience and the degree – it was the situation of being in the right place at the right time for the right job,” she recalls.
“Everything coming into Cleveland Clinic goes through my dock,” she explains.  “This includes all the food, medicine, equipment, storeroom items – everything,” she continues.  “We have a big plaque on the wall that says Service to Patients Starts Here.  Cleveland Clinic would not operate if we weren’t here.  We touch everything, from five-cent Band-Aids to multi-million-dollar MRI machines.  It’s quite a responsibility.”
Boulter’s real-world experience with health services administration started while at Kent State.  She worked with Assistant Dean Ken Slenkovich and doctoral student Aimee Budnik on data collection and analysis associated with the college’s project to assist three health departments in Portage County as they consider new models of working together.  “That was an amazing experience, and I learned a tremendous amount comparing the operations of the Kent, Ravenna and Portage County health departments,” Boulter says.
Prior to her BSPH program, Boulter was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, serving for seven years in material control and accounting.  More recently, she trained automobile inspectors for Chrysler Corporation for 14 years.  When its Twinsburg unit closed in 2010, she received a buyout package that paid for two years of college.  Boulter chose the BSPH.  Her advice to students and graduates:  “Don’t be afraid to try things, to give up on something that’s comfortable and do something that’s frightening.  Always be looking for different opportunities,” she says.