When it comes to health, Kern County typically tops the wrong lists, with many residents suffering from chronic issues such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
And there's another problem: when Kern County Public Health Services or another entity looks to hire public health professionals, they have to recruit outside the area.
That's all about to change with the announcement that Cal State Bakersfield will begin offering a bachelor of science degree in public health beginning in fall 2021. The addition to CSUB's curriculum hopes to solve some of the issues that have historically plagued the region.
"We’re hopeful that by educating students in the local area, they’ll stay in the local area," said Todd McBride, interim dean of the School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering.
The public health degree will be an interdisciplinary program that draws from all four schools at CSUB and several departments, including Nursing and Kinesiology.
With the new degree will come the hiring of two new faculty members who earned their Ph.D.s in Public Health: Andrea Lopez and Linh Bui. They will be teaching three new courses: one about careers in public health, another about current issues and core concepts in public health and an advanced course where students will split their time between lectures and a public health site.
The need for trained public health professionals in the community is urgent but the interest from students is there, according to McBride.
Every year only 60 out of the 250 students who apply are allowed into the university's competitive nursing program. That leaves many more students with a clear interest in health but without an obvious path. McBride is hopeful that some of those students will choose to pursue a degree in public health.
Those who graduate CSUB's public health degree program could go on to work for all sorts of health agencies, but a major partner in the program is the Kern County Public Health Services Department.
Many of the positions in the department require someone with a degree in public health and to find those people the department needs to look outside the county, said Brynn Carrigan, director of Kern Public Health.
Carrigan said the employees she recruits are talented, but she appreciates the level of passion and knowledge about the community that homegrown employees bring to their positions. This degree will create new opportunities for those individuals with an interest in health to come work for the department.
"This is a phenomenal opportunity for Kern County-raised individuals to truly make a difference right here in their hometown," Carrigan said.
Because of COVID-19, the public is much more aware of the role that local public health plays, especially when it comes to infectious diseases. But Carrigan said the opportunities are vast at the department.
Those with public health degrees can have a wide range of positions. They might inspect restaurants, educate people struggling with chronic issues like diabetes or work in laboratories that process specimens for STDs or Valley Fever. They might work in marketing on public health campaigns.
The department and CSUB will work closely to offer students internship opportunities or practicum hours. Carrigan said it's a great chance for students to get experience and try out different areas of public health before they commit to working in there.
Lopez, who will join CSUB as an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, said she was attracted to the idea of building out a public health program in the Central Valley — especially at a university that has so many first-generation college students.
"We have a lot of assets here," she said. "It’s how we can best use them to improve the health of our community."
Lopez isn't new to the San Joaquin Valley. She conducted research at UC Merced about how immigration policies affected the health and well-being of families in the San Joaquin Valley from Stanislaus to Fresno.
She looks forward to keeping up these links with UC Merced and CSU Stanislaus and bringing a "collaborative approach to health issues in the valley" to the new degree program.
Closer to home, McBride said that CSUB is working with Bakersfield College to make sure that students in the two-year Public Health program are able to move seamlessly when they transfer into CSUB's new program.
The Department of Education awarded a $3 million five-year grant to both BC and CSUB in the fall to prepare students for careers in the medical field and to improve the health of Kern County. That's what's funding the new program, McBride said.