Public Health is Everywhere

by | Apr 2, 2024 | Academics, Featured

SJSU participants in National Public Health Week 2023. Photo courtesy of Anji Buckner.

The odds are good that after (or even during) the COVID-19 pandemic, public health suddenly became a priority in your life, as we all looked to leaders to help us through a frightening, unpredictable time. 

But according to Anji Buckner, ’04 MPH, assistant professor of public health at San José State, public health is part of everyone’s lives, whether they’re aware of it or not, and it should always be part of a larger conversation about how people live, work and play.

As undergraduate program coordinator for San José State University’s public health program, her passion helps fuel her career and her hopes for future public health leaders. SJSU’s Public Health Week, running from April 8-12, is part of these efforts. 

It’s important to Buckner (and to many others in the program) that students see the vast opportunities in public health. It’s not just a stepping stone to a career in healthcare, as a nurse or a doctor. There are opportunities in areas like social science research, in county health departments, or working in county supervisor offices as policy analysts. Students can work for community non-profits or health agencies, or in health administration at hospitals or clinics. There are even jobs in industry; some public health students get jobs at Google or other large companies as wellness coordinators. 

A unique approach to public health

“What drew me to public health as a practice was the opportunity to think deeply and critically about social issues and healthcare systems,” Buckner remembers. “But it doesn’t stop there. It really builds in the action. And I love that part of it, because many of us who do work in communities are working in advocacy.”

The SJSU public health programs work within this advocacy framework while also preparing students for careers in the field. To that end, both undergrad and graduate curricula were revamped right before the pandemic (an unlucky coincidence, or maybe a lucky one, depending on how you look at it).

The undergraduate program includes three pathways: a general public health pathway, community health education and a relatively new population data science track. “It really is all about: how do we collect evidence, analyze evidence and data and information, and then what do we do with it once we have it?” Buckner explains. “It’s new, it’s innovative, and it’s quite different in the undergraduate public health field.”

The undergraduate program also features many hands-on opportunities, including a course in program planning, where students practice applying for a hypothetical grant, and a chance for students to attend the CSU Health Policy Conference in Sacramento. Students also intern with community partners, working on various projects including organizing health fairs, recruiting participants, creating infographics and generally supporting their initiatives.

Adventures in population data science 

SJSU Public Health students at the CSU Health Policy Conference in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of Anji Buckner.

SJSU Public Health students at the CSU Health Policy Conference in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of Anji Buckner.

Vaishnavi Sunkari, ’23 Public Health, pursued the population data science pathway, and loved the opportunity to think about public health from the ground up. “I’ve always wanted to enter a field in which I could give back to communities because I have seen firsthand how structural inequities can affect individuals,” she says.

“Not many universities offer public health students the opportunity to learn quantitative and coding skills without doing a minor in statistics or computer science. I sincerely appreciate how the SJSU program created the population data science concentration for absolute beginners. This program allowed me to really figure out if research was the right fit for me.”

As president of the Public Health Honors Society during her time at SJSU, she made great friends and gained valuable experience in both research and public speaking skills, among others. She also received the Outstanding Graduating Senior award and worked as a research assistant for Buckner, while juggling peer advising and other projects. In the future, she hopes to become an epidemiologist.

The graduate program 

The Master of Public Health (MPH) program at SJSU celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020, and according to Buckner is “very well-established” as one of the first freestanding MPH programs in the country. In fact, she says, “Our connections and networks are really far and wide.” Many public health practitioners in California, and particularly in the Bay Area, are graduates of the program.

The program is also nationally recognized, with rankings included in Fortune Magazine, Money Magazine (where it was one of only two programs nationally, and the only program in California, to receive 5 out of 5 stars), and Public Health Degrees Online.

Kevin Roe, the MPH program director and a lecturer in public health who recently received the Outstanding Lecturer Award, explains: “Our program is community and practitioner-focused to address the health of individuals and the communities they are a part of by addressing environmental factors and how they’re intertwined with individual behaviors.”  

Amber Parker, ’25 MPH, was an undergraduate art major who fell in love with public health during her time volunteering at a family and women’s shelter in Santa Cruz, where she helped facilitate a multi-day sexual health and healthy relationships workshop for middle school students. “I didn’t receive any quality sex-ed growing up,” she says, “so this was a special opportunity to help out some young folks who were trying their best to figure it all out, just like the younger me.”

She’s taken the community health track for her MPH and wants to continue this work in health education, particularly with “taboo” topics relative to sexuality and drugs. “I hope to help break down the stigmas and get people to talk more openly about these topics,” she explains, “and show them how to take care of themselves and their community with kindness.”

At SJSU, she’s co-president of the MPH-SA (the student association) and part of the Queer Public Health (QPH) working group, which “strives to create a more LGBTQ+ inclusive MPH program.”

And she finds it all invigorating. As Parker concludes, “Being in a room of fellow public health nerds makes class exciting and meaningful because everyone cares just as much as you do!”

Public health and other disciplines 

The various programs, classes and opportunities in SJSU public health all lead back to one point: public health really is everywhere, and it’s expanding into new fields all the time. (Even at SJSU, where an online BS in public health is a new option for students who wish to complete their degrees fully online.)

“There are some really exciting avenues for public health in California,” Buckner says, including opportunities in public schools and urban planning. “Public health has an incredible opportunity to complement so many other disciplines because we’re always thinking about how to create healthy spaces for people.”

Can’t get enough of public health? Learn more about Public Health Week at SJSU and all its events and opportunities.