High-schoolers On Pathway to Public Health Careers

“I learned that there’s more to public health than what you may think…that if you like making a difference in someone else’s life, public health is something you should definitely look into.” Public Health Pathways Academy student survey comment.

Adam Graczyk.

Adam Graczyk

With the need for professionals in public health and health professions more urgent than ever, a program at UB aims to capture the imaginations, early on, of people who might one day join the field--and make it more diverse.

Public Health Pathways Academy is an effort among UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center (AHEC), and HOPE Buffalo/CAI. The course is designed to introduce 10th and 11th graders to the world of public health and to their career options in the field. Its most important goal: To improve diversity among students seeking careers in public health and the health professions through admission to UB.

Clinical Assistant Professor of Community Health and Health Behavior Adam Graczyk, PhD, oversees the course: “Even some of our incoming freshmen haven’t been exposed to what public health is, so Pathways gives students a starting point—what public health is, how broad it is. We also wanted them to establish a connection to UB.”

Featuring lectures and demonstrations by faculty and public health organizations; group activities; and student-led presentations, the course awards students one college credit. This year’s group of 14 future public-health pros came from Buffalo, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls public high schools. All were members of underrepresented minorities or those who would be the first in their family to attend college. 

Pathway to college credit

The genesis of Pathways was a public health summer camp that SPHHP and AHEC formerly offered. SPHHP posited the idea of making the learning more rigorous and offering the college credit. AHEC bit, and Pathways was born.

During the seven weeks of the course, students learned about epidemiology, health disparities, disease prevention, exercise science, nutrition and other disciplines. They also got information about preparing for college, like how to create personal statements and common questions on college applications.

Mining his background in improv, Graczyk involved students each class session in activities to set the tone at the start of the day and boost energy at the end of the day.

The activities “help establish a welcoming, open environment,” Graczyk explains. “In improv, there’s no such thing as failing, and I try to bring that into the classroom.”

In their post-course survey responses, students said they greatly valued hearing from various guest speakers that visited Pathways virtually. Those included SPHHP health professions and public health faculty; current SPHHP students and alumni; and staff from Erie County Department of Health on Narcan training, Hope Buffalo speakers on sex education, and UB on how to apply, financial aid and other admissions topics.

Neighborhood trash on the ground.

A final-project photo taken by a Pathways to Public Health student, illustrating a health issue in their community.

Solving community problems

The final day of the course featured—what else?—final projects. Students took a photo in their community that illustrated a public health problem, then did research and talked about the issues, ultimately offering their ideas for public health interventions that could solve the problem. They also connected with SPHHP Student Ambassadors, who served as mentors on the projects.

The final project really gave students a personal connection to an issue and to their community,” said Graczyk.

Brittany Mitchell, LMSW, Erie Niagara AHEC program manager, agreed. “The Public Health Pathways Academy was an amazing opportunity for high school students to gain exposure to the field of public health, and the impact it has on the communities they live in. Because of this program, these students are better equipped to address public health concerns within their own communities, as well as to take that knowledge and share with their friends and loved ones,” Mitchell said. “We look forward to continuing this partnership and creating more public health advocates in the Buffalo community.”

Among the hoped-for outcomes for Pathways participants are their greater knowledge of public health topics and future acceptance in college and health-related programs. Course survey results showed that some of those outcomes seem very likely.

I feel like every aspect of the program helped me… I wasn’t sure how I would fit into the medical field and public health. I came in not knowing much…[but] they touched on so many different topics that you can choose from if you were to be in public health. It all played a huge part in my thinking for the future. --Public Health Pathways Academy student survey comment.