News Academics

Concordia adds new minor to its health and science programs

When Dr. Gwen Halaas ’75 returned to Concordia College to serve as dean of the Sanford Heimarck School of Health Professions, she realized something was missing from its lengthy list of programs, concentrations, and specializations.

The patient-driven focus on individual and family health was clearly present, with a good mix of theory and practical experience, and a balance of technology and caregiving.

Far less obvious, however, was a dedicated pathway at Concordia for those hoping to study healthcare from a wider perspective, looking at whole communities and populations to solve health problems on a wider scale — or better, prevent them altogether.

Halaas, who earned her medical degree at Harvard and trained in family medicine at the University of Minnesota, saw a gap in the program and began working to fill it.

Beginning in Fall 2024, Concordia students will have access to a new interdisciplinary minor in public health, which will include a new course offering, Introduction to Epidemiology.

The timing of the academic addition might just be perfect for a college whose stated purpose is to influence the world by sending out thoughtful, informed, and dedicated people — because public health workers are in short supply.

A study published in the April 2023 Annual Review of Public Health found the public health workforce lost 40,000 jobs between 2009 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, tens of thousands of public health workers left during the pandemic response, leaving many needs in their wake.

Offering public health as a new minor rather than a major might seem like an odd step, but it will allow students to be competitive when they apply for Master of Public Health programs. Those programs don’t require a bachelor’s degree specific to public health and, in fact, a different major might offer students a broader perspective before they begin specialized postgraduate work, Halaas said.

As a minor, public health will be accessible to students of any course of study, too — all the health and science majors and any students going into health professions, but others, too.

“It’ll only give them a better perspective on health and public health training,” the dean said. “Anyone who has an interest in helping people be healthy or helping families or communities be healthy, and understanding why they’re not.”

Studying public health will help prepare students to address two of the major issues in contemporary healthcare — how do social determinants affect people’s health, and why don’t people get better?

Often, Halaas said, sociological factors like poverty or transportation options have negative impacts on people’s health, and the healthcare system isn’t really built to address those issues. The result is that different populations can experience healthcare in very different ways, with accessibility and quality changing depending on the color of one’s skin, the primary language one speaks, or other factors beyond an individual’s control.

Students choosing the new minor will also have plenty of community engagement and Pivotal Experience in Applied Knowledge (PEAK) opportunities in public health settings.

“Regardless of where they’ll go, healthcare will be a part of their life,” Halaas said. “Anybody can benefit.”

Read more about Concordia's public health minor.