Colgate Introduces New Academic Minor in Global Public and Environmental Health

Beginning this fall, Colgate will officially offer a new interdisciplinary minor in Global Public and Environmental Health (GPEH). In an email sent to the student body on May 10, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Tracey Hucks announced that the program will be categorized under the Division of University Studies, and Assistant Professor of Biology Bineyam Taye will serve as its inaugural faculty director.

The program was approved in the Spring 2021 semester by the Dean’s Advisory Council and is comprised of pre-existing courses, as well as one new course, Introduction to Global Public and Environmental Health. By making the program available to students, Colgate joins more than 137 institutions of higher education that offer an academic concentration in public health, according to Hucks.

According to the University website, the GPEH minor aims to help students build tools to deal with critical global public health issues through an interdisciplinary approach that combines approaches from the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. Rebecca Upton — A. Lindsay O’Connor Chair of American Institutions in Sociology and Anthropology & Africana and Latin American Studies — was part of the planning and coordination team responsible for launching GPEH and said that it exemplifies a well-suited combination of interdisciplinary programs and the liberal arts.

“GPEH strikes me as unique and an important part of Colgate’s curricular offerings,” Upton said. “We drew on the experience of myriad faculty across the University and gave a good deal of thought and attention to how GPEH fits with the ‘Third Century Plan…’ It is a program that by its very nature asks students to grapple with issues of diversity, inclusion, disparity and equity in the field of global and environmental health promotion. It is timely, yet is well-grounded in the very principles of this kind of educational experience.”

Along with serving as faculty director, Taye will also co-teach the new course, Introduction to Global Public and Environmental Health with Upton. Approved by the Curriculum Committee for this coming Fall semester, this course serves as a common introductory course and is one of six GPEH course requirements.

Introduction to Global Public and Environmental Health explores how intersectional identities affect our experiences with global health issues. The University web page specifically enumerates focuses such as maternal and child health, immigrant and refugee health, and the political and cultural influences on disparities in health outcomes. Divided into two parts, the course splits its focus between disease causation and global health issues in the context of cross-culture and history.

“These kinds of introductory courses reflect the various approaches in the field where students and scholars are trained to be facile in both the social and the natural sciences — we look at the important areas of [intersection],” Upton said. “… I have to admit that seeing students find their passion and niche in the field as a result of the breadth of an introductory class is always rewarding and reminds me of why I ended up doing the work I do: that passion and really ‘finding’ your academic and activist place. Basically, I get excited about intro courses like this one because not only do you see the value of the discipline itself, but also how it quintessentially embodies the liberal arts.”

Senior Harrison Blume, who plans to complete the minor program, echoed Upton’s sentiments.

“The course requirements for the minor seem to be very flexible and interdisciplinary, which makes it more accessible to students across a range of majors. If you are interested in any component of how we are affected by public health and environmental issues, this minor is an excellent way to further explore this topic,” Blume said.

The five remaining course requirements fall under pre-existing academic departments, including Methodological Perspectives and at least three of the four “Perspective” disciplinary groups (Scientific, Environmental, Social and/or Humanities).

Planning for GPEH began in the Fall 2020 semester, during which Taye and Professor of Biology Krista Ingram held meetings for faculty who had an interest in a potential public health-related program.

“Long before this past academic year there had been growing interest in the field — this is true nationwide where we’ve seen growing numbers of undergraduate students who want to pursue global and environmental health degrees over the past decade,” Upton said.

The preliminary planning stage culminated in crafting and presenting a proposal that was presented to University committees, upon which Upton said those involved in setting up the minor received a “tremendous response” from both students and faculty. Interest in the Introduction to Global Public and Environmental Health course and the Critical Global Health course taught by Upton in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology has accordingly “been remarkable,” Upton said.

Public health has dominated the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Junior Parna Shakouri noted how this crisis has uncovered deeper systemic problems.

“While COVID-19 is the epitome of public health crises in recent history, it is not the only one we are facing,” Shakouri said. “The pandemic opened my eyes to the other health disparities that our most vulnerable communities suffer from every day.  It led me to engage in public health coursework and service and re-imagine the career I envisioned for myself in medicine. It taught me that global public health is about more than science or statistics, it’s about people, community, and the incredible effort we must put in countering systemic injustices.”

“Numerous faculty have been working on scholarly projects related to GPEH and of course many have teaching interests that make such an interdisciplinary program appealing,” Upton said. “Students in particular have been so unbelievably enthusiastic — both current undergraduates and alumni. I’ve spoken with numerous Colgate graduates (recent and not-so-recent alike) who have been in touch over the past year who shared that they wished they’d had GPEH when they were here.”