BPH students choose their own path "This is what you need to do!"
A Bachelor of Public Health (BPH) degree from the University of Kentucky College of Public Health (CPH) offers students many paths to make the world a better place. With the undergraduate degree’s solid public health foundation, graduates are equipped with the tools to advocate, to promote, and to transform health care.
For many students, the bachelor’s degree is the career-ready credential necessary to embark on professions in health communication, management, policy, data, education, or analytics. For others, the BPH is the underpinning for further education in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, law, public policy, physical therapy, or a host of other academic pursuits.
Students’ initial paths into undergraduate public health education are as diverse as the opportunities available to them after they have earned a BPH degree. Choosing a career path is a major life decision and selecting a college major is an important step. Several CPH students recently shared why they chose public health.
Half of eventual degree recipients arrive at the University of Kentucky (UK) with BPH as their declared degree. Most of those students had spoken previously with a CPH recruiter and student advisor or read about the BPH as part of their college planning.
The other half of students arrive at UK as undeclared majors or with initial plans to pursue a different degree. UK core courses offered by CPH have served as a significant channel into the BPH program for undeclared students in their first or second year. Undergraduate transfers from pre-med are another prominent pathway to CPH’s undergraduate degree.
The question heard over and again: What is public health?
Typical BPH candidates are students who felt a desire to help others and wanted a career where they can act on that passion. They see the “big picture” of health care and are motivated by the ideals of health access and policy. Most were exposed to public health concepts while in high school, but typically did not learn about the field of public health until they began their college search or—for a significant number—until after they had arrived on campus for their undergraduate careers.
Several CPH students shared why they chose public health. Second-year student Emma Grace Hague committed to the BPH program after already being accepted to UK but before starting classes.
“In high school, I had learned about public health concepts like health inequities and epidemiology, but I wasn't aware that those concepts could be studied as part of an undergraduate degree. Luckily when I got to UK, I was introduced to an advisor who connected my love of advocacy and interest in science/medicine to public health.”
Jade Forest is a third year BPH student who plans to apply for CPH’s BPH/MPH University Scholar’s Program, in which students may complete both degrees in five years. She started at UK as a pre-med student and recalls some confusion about public health when she made the decision to switch majors.
“When I was accepted in CPH, I met all these other students who had been pre-med or other better-known majors. When we told our parents that we were going into ‘public health,’ it was a field many of them had never heard of. Now, I’m so happy to be able to introduce public health to little girls and boys and tell them, ‘This is what you need to do!’”
Public health appeals to students who want to improve the world around them
Empathy, equity, and community are three of the most common ideas discussed when BPH students reflect on their inspiration to pursue a public health degree.
Dr. Sarah Vos, assistant professor, and director of undergraduate research in the College of Public Health, notes that “public health naturally appeals to students with interest in social well-being. Public health speaks to what they want to do in the world.”
Concern about local health care disparities inspired second year BPH student Olivia Allran to enter public health.
“The most important reason I declared [in the] BPH [program] was to learn how to best give back to the communities I am a part of and to help them live the best lives they possibly can,” she says. “Kentucky—especially Appalachia—has some of the highest rates of cancer in the country. Having many close family members from Eastern Kentucky, this fact hits close to home. I would love to help reduce these staggering statistics and increase the access to health care, especially cancer screenings and treatment, in these areas.”
Fellow student Vanessa Diaz also finds inspiration in the “public” part of public health.
“My interest in considering a public health degree is my desire to help the community,” the fourth year BPH candidate says. “I genuinely experience a great sense of satisfaction and fulfillment being able to provide for those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to what public health programs provide to them.”
“A true public health perspective includes thinking about justice and equity,” says Dr. Vos, who believes the great causes of public health appeal especially to individuals who have experienced inequity in their lives.
“Part of what we do in public health is to imagine what we can do as a society and how we can create the world we want to live in. Public health students are interested in being part of a larger solution in the world.”
Third year BPH student Princess Magor Agbozo, a recipient of this year’s Lyman T. Johnson Torch Bearer award, reflects on her own experiences that led to her current studies:
“Growing up, I had the opportunity to live in different places, which exposed me to different lifestyles, cultures, and health settings.
“Having spent a lot of time in health care institutions because of family ailments, I began to notice that health care accessibility and services differed according to location and environments. How health care was administered in one environment did not necessarily apply to another environment, which was intriguing to me, which then fueled my passion and interest in public health.
“At the time I was not aware of the concept of ‘public health,’ however, I did know that I wanted to contribute to bettering the health of populations and ensuring that health care accessibility and services are available to any- and everyone, regardless of the environment or location they may be in. With this goal in mind, I initially enrolled into UK as a biology major, but after conversations with my advisor and taking my first CPH class—CPH 201: Intro to Public Health—I knew public health was the route I wanted to follow.”
A path for those interested in health care, but not necessarily just medicine
The relationship between public health and medicine is complex. The BPH is a common undergraduate degree for many students who plan to pursue advanced degrees in medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, and other medical fields. For them, public health studies complement their medical ambitions.
Olivia Allran cites “a combination of an interest in medicine and public health policy” for her decision to become a BPH major.
“I did not begin to pursue a BPH until my second semester sophomore year. I started at UK as a biology major. While I enjoyed the content and am still continuing to pursue a biology minor along with my BPH, I felt there was more to health care and medicine than solely the biology behind a disease or illness.
“I knew that there were social and structural determinants of health that, for many reasons, often prevented people from seeking or being able to obtain the care that they need. I want to be able to understand my patients’ backgrounds and beliefs, in order to better help them. I have always been told that you treat the patient, not just the disease.”
Further studies in medicine are also the plan for Emma Grace Hague.
“My goal is to eventually attend medical school; I decided to pursue a public health degree to get a better understanding of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that occurs outside the clinical setting. I also feel very passionate about addressing health care inequity and knowledge of public health is vital to that,” she says.
“My interest in public health started off as an interest solely in medicine but as I began learning more and more about how clinical care interacts with the broader spectrum of public health, I've begun really enjoying both sides of the coin.
“I decided to declare a BPH major because it combined my interest in clinical medicine while still looking at the bigger picture. Studying public health has given me the opportunity to learn more than how to just treat individuals, I have gotten to learn how to treat entire communities.”
Vanessa Diaz sees her forthcoming BPH degree as an academic advantage as she considers future medical studies.
“I found CPH because of my initial interest in going to medical school. After speaking to a representative of the college, they told me about that majoring in public health would make my application for medical school stand out as many applicants are biology majors or a major that is science related.”
Ashley Duff, a BPH graduate who is now working on her Master of Public Health (MPH) also views a public health undergraduate degree as a solid foundation.
“A BPH degree will prepare me for the career I want to have—hopefully, a doctor—because it has given me knowledge in another field of health care that focuses on the population rather than an individual,” she says. “I believe if I become a doctor, I'd be more well-rounded. Because of my degree, I’ve learned about everything from causes of disease, to why people pick up unhealthy habits, and how to get them to stop.”
For many other BPH students, however, a public health education was specifically a path away from medicine. Indeed, dozens of pre-med students quickly discover every Fall semester they are more interested in the preventive and community aspects of health services than in the chemistry and biology of medical care.
Recalling her goals as a high school student, Jade Forest says,
“I knew I was going to be a doctor. I was going to be pre-med. But, as a freshman, I realized psychology and chem weren’t my thing. I found [Director of Academic Advising] Jennifer Stevens and was able to see myself in public health.”
For Jade, the reality of medicine was not what she had envisioned when she was younger, and public health careers were more appealing.
“I realized I don’t have to deal with patients, don’t have to be in a chem lab, I can be part of the community aspect of health—dealing with prevention, helping with recovery.”
Second-year student Faith Fursman recognized that “the idea of treating patients was something I wasn’t the most interested in, so I started digging for what I could do instead. That’s when I discovered public health. I found it because of a mixture of an interest in medicine and research. I’ve always known that I was interested in medicine and the science behind a lot of it, but the clinical patient relationship is not for me.”
We are a small community with the resources of a large university
At the College of Public Health, BPH students enjoy a unique mix of “a small-college experience and large-university resources,” according to Dr. Sarah Cprek, assistant professor, and director of undergraduate studies at CPH.
As a land-grant institution and Kentucky’s flagship university, UK offers significant academic opportunities and institutional facilities to all its undergraduate students. CPH is one of UK’s smallest colleges and boasts the close community culture of a smaller school, however, ensuring that BPH students are not “lost” in the vastness of a larger campus.
BPH students mention direct interaction with faculty during undergraduate studies as one of the greatest benefits of the program. In addition to faculty access in class, BPH students have opportunities for research and independent study during their undergraduate careers.
Acting Dean Dr. Heather Bush points out that “a lot of things happening in BPH are core to the college. BPH students say they are here because they want to make a difference. They’re special, engaged, activists, and they want to change the world.”
Dr. Cprek credits “a collaborative effort by CPH Undergraduate Committee to strengthen our course and program desigFfn as well as our incredible student support team” for the program’s current success.
She also notes CPH’s efforts on “students who are both interested in health and passionate about making the world a better place. We are proud that our program resonates with students from all backgrounds including first-generation students, rural students, and underrepresented minority students.”
The many career pathways available to BPH graduates
BPH is a career-ready degree but also serves as a solid foundation for advanced medical, policy, research, and academic degrees and certifications.
Dr. Cprek says, “About half of our students go on to some kind of graduate or professional program. The other half use the BPH to enter directly into the public health workforce.”
Jennifer Stevens, who instructs CPH students in a course on public health careers in addition to her role as the College’s director of academic advising, says a standalone BPH degree equips graduates to make an impact on their community.
“Like other careers, an advanced degree will help you move up and be eligible for advanced positions,” she says, “but BPH graduates are ready to start a meaningful and prosperous career.”
If BPH students choose to continue their studies, Jennifer notes that “public health students often get their BPH base, then work in the field before deciding what specialty to pursue and therefore what advanced degree to follow.”
She also shares that graduate certifications and licensures within the field of public health are options for increased career marketability.
An office dedicated to recruiting and supporting students
The College of Public Health has a student services office dedicated to supporting undergraduate students from recruitment through graduation and beyond.
About half of the College’s BPH eventual graduates engage with SEAS—CPH’s Office of Student Engagement & Academic Success—before making the decision to study at the University of Kentucky. CPH recruiters share information with high schools across Kentucky and conduct in-person and virtual recruitment sessions across the Commonwealth.
SEAS staff also work closely with students who enter the BPH program after beginning their undergraduate studies at UK, either as undeclared students or when they are changing their majors:
Third year BPH student Jade Forest recalls her first interaction with SEAS:
“I was one of the lucky ones to find out about public health during my first year. I talked to [Director of Academic Advising] Jennifer Stevens—who is amazing—during the Fall semester of my freshman year. She introduced me to this field, public health, that does everything I’m interested in and gets me on a path to become what I want. I enrolled in CPH in the spring semester and received a peer mentor. I met with a wide variety of public health students who all had the same story.”
Fourth year BPH student Vanessa Diaz decided on a BPH path after speaking with SEAS at a recruitment event at her high school:
“I made the decision to pursue BPH the summer before starting my freshman year at UK after speaking to a representative from the College of Public Health at an open house event. I had never heard of public health prior to this. I was jumping back and forth between a nursing major or a biology major for medical school purposes.
It has truly been the best decision I could have made. It wasn’t until my spring semester, freshman year, that I took my first introduction course for CPH where I truly learned what public health meant. Learning that public health seeks to treat the community was the determining factor for me to realize that I was in the right place.”
UK Core courses inspire students to consider public health
Dr. Sarah Cprek has taught CPH 201: Introduction to Public Health since 2015. CPH 201 can be used to fulfill the UK Core requirement for intellectual inquiry in social science for all undergraduate students at UK, regardless of major.
Dr. Cprek quickly noticed that the course was serving as a recruitment experience for the BPH program.
“Many students who are not familiar with the scope of public health take CPH 201 as a freshman or sophomore and realize, ‘this is a path to what I want to do with my life.’”
In addition to CPH 201, the college offers five more undergraduate courses that fulfill a UK Core requirement, including classes on biostatistics, epidemiology, gerontology, sexual health, and public health and popular films.
Dr. Cprek notes academic advisors suggest these classes to students when they express an interest in health-related careers.
“Through these classes, many students who did not know about public health find a career opportunity that will allow them to positively impact health outcomes. It has been a great way for UK students to find our program.”
Accelerated program offers BPH/MPH option to students
Third-year Bachelor of Public Health students in excellent academic standing have the option to apply for the University Scholars Program, an accelerated degree program allowing students to earn both the BPH and Master of Public Health (MPH) within five years. Separately, the degrees require six years of study.
Known colloquially as the “Plus-One” program, the BPH/MPH option has an application process with requirements for minimum overall and major grade point averages; recommendation letters; and other documentation.