Responding to a dearth of homegrown public health specialists and an expanding lack of community literacy in health issues, Bakersfield College launched a Public Health Sciences transfer degree this year with plans to add a certificate program within months.

The degree, which was approved this month and is the first of its kind in the southern San Joaquin Valley, provides a pathway for students to transfer from BC to a four-year college and receive a bachelor's degree in a public health field.

“We need to train public health professionals for the workforce,” Professor Sarah Baron, the leading faculty member running the program, said, stressing that locals could make a bigger impact in public health.

It could coax more students to get degrees and come back to the San Joaquin Valley, where there’s a shortage of public health specialists. The Kern County Public Health Services Department must often recruit outside of the area to hire its employees.

“Public health people want to know the community and know how to get to different target populations,” Baron said. “That’s a big tenet of public health. It has to be local.”

When most people think of public health, a clinical image of doctors, nurses and hospitals comes to mind, Baron said. It’s much more than that. Public Health focuses on community wellness and promotion of healthy habits to protect entire communities, prevent illness and advancing healthcare equality and access.

Careers in public health include epidemiologists who investigate disease outbreak, health inspectors who ensure basic standards are being met at eateries, community liaisons and school health advocates, among scores of other jobs.

“Kern County struggles with public health issues that impact us both individually and as a community as a whole. Public health sciences degree is dedicated to helping to save lives on a population level through disease and injury prevention. Beyond impacting community wellness, there is a job demand both nationally and locally,” BC President Sonya Christian said.

But the program’s importance also comes down to educating young adults to be more aware of public health issues, said Baron, who began offering public health courses this year.

A DAY IN CLASS

Midway through Baron’s Wednesday morning public health class, Jose Ayala whipped a homemade burrito from his backpack.

Matt Constantine, the Kern County Public Health director who was guest-lecturing that day, seized the opportunity as a teaching moment.

The battery of questions began.

Who made that burrito? Mom.

When? About 5 a.m., around the time she fixes dad’s lunch.

What’s in it? Ayala was not sure. Maybe beans and meat.

When are you planning on eating it? Maybe noon, after class ends.

“He has a potentially hazardous food: beans and meat. Hopefully mom cooked it well. Does she have a thermometer?” No. Constantine handed him one to give to his mom.

But that didn't change the fact that Ayala had been holding onto a burrito for seven hours that had gone unrefrigerated.

“The listeria, salmonella, escherichia coli in here is actively growing right now. Since 5 a.m., your mom gave you an incubator, right? She gave you a petri dish,” Constantine said.

He turned to another student.

“What temperature do you cook your hamburger to? Your life depends on this, right?”

She looked a bit sheepish. Until it looks done, she said.

“Yes, because you can see salmonella, right?” Constantine joked.

The lesson Constantine was illustrating with his incessant, if not jovial, line of questioning? Food-borne illnesses don’t just happen in restaurants. Half the time, they happen from foods prepared at home, but most people don’t know that.

And even though the Kern County Public Health Services Department is responsible for ensuring restaurants adhere to stringent food safety guidelines, most people don’t hold themselves to the same standards at home.

A few minutes later, Constantine was lecturing on biosolids, otherwise known as the 32 truck loads of treated sewage and waste hauled into Kern County from Los Angeles every day and applied on property L.A. purchased for just that purpose. The county has waged lawsuits against the practice but lost, Constantine said.

“It’s an interesting problem we face,” Constantine said, noting what some believe are environmental risks to groundwater, air and farmland. “You guys are the next leaders. You’ve got to do better to be more informed and educated and drive the change. It’s a wide range of issues, but they all need help. We need attention, we need your smarts.”

CHANGE AGENTS

The call to action captured the attention of at least a few students in class.

Paoloa Perez, 22, initially planned to enter a nursing program at BC — which is impacted and admits students through a lottery system, much like other community college nursing programs —but has been waiting in the lottery system for two years. After enrolling in an introductory course, she decided to get her transfer degree in public health while she awaits entry into the nursing program.

“There’s more opportunities in public health,” Perez said, adding that a public health background would make her more valuable to employers. She could become a public health nurse, she said.

“She made me fall in love with it,” Perez said of Baron. “You can do so many things in public health to help your community.”

Likewise, Adriana Tapia, a 26-year old mother of two, said she decided to change majors from nursing to public health sciences after taking a field trip to the Public Health Department this year.

For others, like Calleshia Gilliam, 36, the program will allow expanded educational opportunities. Gilliam, a Jamaican native who immigrated to the U.S., holds a bachelor’s degree in human biology, but has been wanting to broaden her expertise.

“I’ve always wanted to do public health,” said Gilliam, who plans to complete her lower-division transfer requirements in public health, then apply for graduate programs for a master’s degree.

PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE FUTURE

Baron said her course curriculum includes an introductory class, and also courses in personal health and wellness, substance abuse and dependency issues, and health and social justice, which provides an overview of how education, socioeconomics, status and racism shape health epidemics and policy development.

Baron said she wants her students to be change agents for the public.

“They need to be those kinds of people. They need to be divergent thinkers,” Baron said.

BC isn’t stopping with a transfer degree, either, Baron said. She’s developing coursework for a terminal certificate program that students who aren’t planning on transferring to a four-year university can obtain.

That program would include partnerships with health care providers that Baron said would offer internships to students. Her goal is to create career tracks for students that would arm them with real-world experience.

“We’re going to focus on creating internships. I’m bringing as many people together as possible,” Baron said. “What about a person who wants experience and wants to get into a public health field right now? You can. You don’t need to become a registered anything. You could go in laterally for an entry level job.”

Baron has also been in talks with Public Health officers throughout the San Joaquin Valley who she said expressed interest in enrolling some employees in an online version of the program for career development and retraining.

The program’s focus on creating job opportunities addresses a gap public health officials have been wanting filled, Constantine said.

“I think oftentimes we miss this opportunity,” Constantine said. “This is a time to educate people about how to learn and how to think, but also to give them career opportunities in the future.”

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