BMCC Launches Public Health Academy, a Pipeline to Careers and Higher Degrees

January 13, 2022

The Public Health Academy (PHA), a student success program jointly administered by the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Health Education Department and BMCC Learning Academy, is matching student goals with the explosive demand for community and public health professionals in underserved communities throughout New York City.

Presidents Fund for Excellence and InnovationThe PHA is one of seven projects funded through the President’s Fund For Excellence and Innovation, established in December 2020 through a generous donation to BMCC from philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott.

Launched in August 2021 with a cohort of 20 students, the PHA links students with the fast-growing public health career sector highlighted most recently by the COVID-19 pandemic — which had a devastating impact on neighborhoods disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and home to many BMCC students.

As PHA scholars, Community Health Education and Public Health majors gain public health professional skills as well as extensive academic support services.

The program will also serve as a pipeline for BMCC students into baccalaureate and master’s degree programs at Hunter College, CUNY and Columbia University as well as provide entry to a variety of public health related professions.

Mentoring, career advisement and internships are among benefits to PHA scholars

Lesley Rennis, Sara Crosby, Lisa Grace and Gloria McNamara

BMCC Health Education Chair Lesley Rennis, Health Education Professors Gloria McNamara and Lisa Grace, as well as BMCC Learning Academy Director Sara Crosby developed and are administering the PHA.

“The PHA is an enrichment program that helps our students gain exposure to public health professions through mentoring and advisement helps them develop skills to become public health professionals,” said Professor Rennis. “Nationally, there are some public health academic enrichment programs, but few of them focus on community college students such as this one.”

The financial support from the President’s Fund enables the program to provide stipends for each student scholar participating in the PHA.

“Typically, our students are going to class and working full time so they don’t have the time to obtain additional skills that come from participating in an internship or enrichment program,” said Professor Rennis. “To be able to give them financial support while they gain these crucial skills benefits them both academically and professionally.”

PHA scholars gain professional skills in community and public health settings

“Many of the internships PHA scholars take part in, are in community settings such as hospitals, acute care and long-term care facilities, as well as agencies that provide food and cooking classes for food-insecure individuals,” said Health Education Professor McNamara.

The internships also include positions that provide supervision for vulnerable youth, McNamara explains. “The students are involved in projects that promote health and prevent disease through activities such as exercise and healthier food choices.”

While the PHA scholars gain work experience in public health, they apply concepts gained through coursework that covers, among other topics, an overview of what wellness is.

“Wellness is multi-dimensional. It includes physical health but also involves mental, spiritual and intellectual health,” said Professor McNamara. “All of these internship placements throughout the city provide the students with an opportunity to connect the PHA curriculum to the community, and apply their knowledge in a work setting. It makes the scholars more aware of the need for public health.”

Many students, she says, were unaware that public health was a career option until the pandemic hit and they were paying closer attention to clinical careers such as nursing or medicine.

“Public health is the health of the public,” said McNamara.

Faculty mentors guide PHA scholars to BMCC’s network of support services

Students in the PHA are assigned dedicated faculty mentors. They attend professional panel discussions, explore career trajectories and utilize student support services at BMCC.

“We took faculty and support staff who are familiar with the existing BMCC resources and built our own program for public health scholars around those resources such as small case-load, high-touch counseling,” said BMCC Learning Academy Director Crosby. “PHA students do not come into the program all needing the same things. They do not all have the same access to resource or time to dedicate to the project. We at the Learning Academy are experts at figuring out how BMCC can better accommodate and those students on their academic journey.”

When a student success program’s leaders, advisors and faculty engage with students on a consistent weekly basis it helps build trusting relationships, says Crosby.

Students in the PHA program explore career paths in the fast-growing public health sector

Nationwide, employment in public health-related occupations is projected to grow by 16 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all other occupations, adding around 2.6 million new jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In densely populated New York City, those numbers are likely even higher.

“We have known for decades that there was a looming shortage of public health workers,” said Professor Rennis. “We have also known for years that we would experience a pandemic like COVID-19. So naturally, we knew there was a need to increase the number of students who would enter the public health field.”

A number of entry-level jobs are available to students who complete associate degree programs at BMCC, but as Health Education Professor Lisa Grace explains, students who successfully complete the PHA will also have opportunities to pursue higher-level degrees.

“Contact tracers, COVID-19 testing, health coaches, public health outreach workers and medical coders are some of the entry-level jobs a person can seek with an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree in Public Health,” said Grace. “Since the pandemic, the health-related job market for those positions and others has increased greatly.”

One of the most significant benefits of the PHA is its pipeline relationship with Hunter College, CUNY as well as Columbia University. Columbia has also earmarked an annual scholarship for a BMCC student who started their academic journey at BMCC’s PHA.

“Students who attend our Public Health Academy and meet the minimum academic requirements for Hunter College are guaranteed admission into Hunter’s Public Health program,” said Professor Grace. “From there, if a student meets the minimum requirements for Teacher’s College at Columbia, a student who started at BMCC is guaranteed admission into their Master of Science in Community Health Education program.”

PHA scholars consider careers in neighborhoods deeply impacted by COVID and public health disparity

Traditionally, public health has focused on graduate-level training but around 10 years ago, national organizations including the Centers for Disease Control began to emphasize the need for undergraduate public health training, according to Professor Rennis.

“Training our students in particular is beneficial, because BMCC students come from the very same neighborhoods impacted by chronic disease and infectious disease epidemics such as COVID-19,” said Rennis.

“If you take a five-borough map of New York City and highlight areas with the highest rates of chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes or substance abuse, and then add then you highlight areas hardest hit by COVID-19, which you then juxtapose with another map highlighting the neighborhoods where a vast portion of BMCC students come from, you’ll find that our students come from those same areas hardest hit by each of those epidemics,” explained Rennis.

PHA students are from those communities and they are motivated to go back to those neighborhoods and help eradicate health-related disparities and increase health equity.

“People want to learn and be educated by people who they trust,” said Professor Rennis. “For our students to be public health professionals in communities where they are from, is not only beneficial to the student in terms of their profession, but also to the community.”

The Public Health Academy relates to BMCC’s Strategic Plan, including but not limited to Strategic Goal 3: Integrating career development throughout the student experience, Strategic Goal 4: Improving completion and transfer rates through integrated support services and Strategic Goal 6: Strengthening BMCC’s role in a thriving New York City and as a leading community college nationally.

  • Public Health Academy (PHA) funded by BMCC President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation
  • Program launched in August 2021 with cohort of 20 BMCC scholars
  • PHA provides academic pipeline to Hunter College, CUNY and Columbia University links participants to entry-level jobs

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