MPH Students Grapple with Public Health Crisis Unfolding in Real Time

In graduate school, professors often highlight case studies as a way to bring abstract concepts and theories into concrete reality for students. For those studying public health, however, the Coronavirus pandemic is a case study like no other, rapidly unfolding in real time and hammering home the importance of their chosen profession.

In California, Master of Public Health students at Azusa Pacific University were in the middle of their spring semester when the novel Coronavirus began to significantly impact daily life in the state and nation. Already tuned into the global conversation around COVID-19, MPH students’ learning suddenly took on even more immediate relevance.

Here are some of the ways MPH students are applying their knowledge in and out of class in response to the present crisis.

Serving Communities with Accurate Information

In their classes, MPH students are diving into Coronavirus data from the county, state, and federal government to understand local and global trends. They are also examining peer-reviewed literature on the latest health research developments to discuss the findings and implications. “This gives our students a chance to ask questions and explore concepts they are hearing about on the news from a credible and reliable perspective,” said Marissa Brash, DrPH, EdD, MPH, CPH, chair of the Department of Public Health in APU’s School of Nursing.

As a result, an MPH student can serve as a trustworthy and expert source for their family, friends, and community by providing accurate information about the virus and public health protocols.

“I'm proud to say that I’ve seen students demonstrate courage and boldness to step into the challenge,” said Brash. “I see them going into the general public as liaisons who help to interpret data, provide clear communication, and work to bridge gaps in understanding legislation, policy, and recommendations from the county, state, and federal regulating bodies and public health departments.”

Real Practice in the Field

Additionally, MPH students who are completing field experiences have a unique opportunity to engage with the crisis up-close and support the work of their agencies and organizations.

While some clinical sites have closed out of necessity, many students are still able to continue their field practicum, providing vital input on public health communication, social media management, policy writing, reviewing legislation, and more.

“Students are recognizing their ability to go into the world and to make changes right now in a way that empowers people and communities,” said Brash.

Collaboration Among Public Health Disciplines

Equally empowering is students’ newfound understanding of just how interconnected public health disciplines really are.

Indeed, in an MPH program that offers seven public health specializations, the field can sometimes seem vast, with each specialty serving a separate function. Faced with a global pandemic of this size and nature, collaboration comes to the fore as all areas must work together toward a common and pressing goal.

“Students are collaborating with each other across disciplines, sharing resources, data, research, and articles,” said Brash. “They now have this common thread that they are all addressing in their internships, and they can see the commonalities between them, from health policy to health administration, epidemiology to public health communication.”

“These disciplines have always been linked,” explained Brash, “but because of the way this is happening around us in real time, it becomes even more evident.”

Preparing for the Pathways Forward

Public health professionals deal frequently in the dynamics of disease, so they are well-equipped to provide leadership during a time when the general public may be anxious and uncertain about what comes next.

“We see on a deeper level where people are vulnerable, how they may be feeling afraid or threatened,” Brash said. “We are called to counteract that.” As APU students apply a Christian perspective on the public health profession, they also address issues of equity and justice—including concerns that have been brought into stark relief during the current crisis, such as the impact on homeless populations, economic disparities, and xenophobia.

“Our MPH students seek to serve not only because of their passion, education, and training, but also because of the impact of their faith and the calling they feel to help protect everyone in our communities,” said Brash.

Public health experts will study the Coronavirus for decades to come. The many ways it will shape our society remain to be fully seen. For now, MPH students at APU represent the vanguard of public health practitioners who will help us navigate through the crisis and into a more secure future.