Meaningful Action

Buffalo statue with Black Lives Matter painted on it.

SPHHP takes on issues of diversity

“I was glad to see African-American women like me in such high levels of power. I was looking for a lot of mentorships and internships…but was just stuck on how to find them. ”
UB Student

Last spring’s tumultuous nationwide reaction to the killing by police officers of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people led the School of Public Health and Health Professions community to a decision: SPHHP would channel its outrage into taking meaningful action on race and class diversity and building a more supportive environment.

As the University of Buffalo and the State University of New York also did at the time, SPHHP articulated its stand against police brutality and systemic racism in any form. Each school at UB began looking at how it addresses racism, with an eye toward building upon and improving what they do.

SPHHP’s moves were and are, however, informed by a particular perspective: that racism and other forms of discrimination are public health crises, a certainty driven home by the inequities brought into sharp relief by COVID-19. SPHHP’s goal is to drive health equity, especially in Western New York. This means contributing to a public health and health professions workforce that’s more diverse; preparing students to deliver the highest quality of care and services across communities; and engaging in service and research that benefit people of color. 

“We want to make our programs more supportive and offer an even more outstanding learning experience for all,” said Heather Orom, PhD, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion. “SPHHP’s learning community is enriched by differences in perspectives and background,” said Orom. “A diverse student body, faculty and staff is instrumental in promoting competence in public health and clinical practice.”

With that stake in the ground, the SPHHP community has been planning and putting into place specific ways not only to grow a more diverse body of students, faculty and staff, but also to nurture a culture of inclusion.

Working groups make key changes

Emerging from a greater awareness of structural racism, nearly 50 faculty, staff and students from all departments joined working groups making changes in eight key areas:

1. Recruiting diverse students

Early outcome: Informational sessions with student ambassadors in undergraduate classes, organized by the Office of Academic and Student Affairs.

What’s next: More information sessions for public health, exercise science and statistics undergraduate classes during the spring semester.

2. Hiring a more diverse faculty and staff

Early outcome: A new standard operating procedure for hiring that includes training members of search committees about unconscious bias, encouraging diverse candidates and the importance of diversity in achieving excellence; keeping searches open until the pool of applicants reflects the make-up of the racial/ethnic background of the labor pool.

What’s next: Paving paths for students to advance from undergraduates to PhD candidates to UB faculty or community leaders.

teacher wearing mask and social distancing in classroom.

3. Funding scholarships for students from diverse backgrounds

Early outcome: Creation of SPHHP’s new Student Diversity Fund, with its founding donors in place.

What’s next: Finding local organizations interested in making stipends available to field trainees from diverse backgrounds.

4. Making classrooms more inclusive

Early outcome: “Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment,” a webinar featuring a panel of students, faculty and break-out groups that offered teachers strategies to help to support students from different backgrounds and experiences in a variety of situations.

What’s next: An SPHHP faculty “community of practice” to explore ways to create a more inclusive learning environment for students.

5. Understanding students’ level of preparedness to work in diverse workplaces and with clients from all backgrounds

Early outcome: Adding metrics to MPH students’ final project that gauge diversity, equity, and inclusion as a core MPH competency.

What’s next: Adding questions to ongoing evaluations of programs and field experiences to measure how well they include learning related to diversity and inclusion.

6. Offering easy-to-access, responsive ways to report discrimination

Early outcome: Designing visually appealing messages to encourage students to report discrimination and provide information on how to do so.

What’s next: Fine-tuning a discrimination-reporting system that students, faculty and staff are comfortable using and believe in without fearing retribution or inaction.

7. Creating mentoring opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds

Early outcome: A November webinar featuring a panel of accomplished SPHHP alumni of color giving students advice, tips and inspiration for achieving their career goals.

What’s next: A mentorship program for SPHHP students, especially with mentors of color.

8. Supporting the SPHHP community in their efforts to be part of the change

Early outcome: An extensive list of resources on ways to be an anti-racist available on the SPHHP website.

What’s next: The launch of a podcast that during its first year will concentrate on the issue of racism and health.

Students find more avenues of support

SPHHP’s view of diversity and inclusion is expansive, reflected in the financial support students receive.

The school considers not only race and ethnicity, but also age, sex and sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disability, religion, socio-economic status, veteran status and whether students are the first in their family to go to college. In the past four years SPHHP has been able to offer much more generous scholarships to attract applicants of diverse backgrounds to its graduate programs. In fact, over the past three years, the school and faculty have devoted funds to supporting seven new diversity scholars who receive tuition support and stipends.

  • The newest source of support is SPHHP’s Student Diversity Fund, dedicated to helping students overcome their barriers to attending programs at the school. “The hope is that this fund will help SPHHP recruit, enroll and retain students across all departments and programs housed within our school,” said Jean Wactawski-Wende, SPHHP dean.
  • Michael F. Noe, MD, SPHHP emeritus clinical professor, recently endowed another new fund expressly supporting the school’s educational diversity, equity and inclusion. The Dr. Michael F. Noe Diversity Scholarship will provide support to students from historically underrepresented populations—including Native Americans—who demonstrate academic excellence and financial need. The fund can also help build recruitment activities to engage diverse student candidates.
  • The Schomburg Fellowship Program has been supporting exceptional doctoral and professional students for several years now. Schomburg fellows contribute to the diversity of UB’s student body, and many have overcome a disadvantage or obstacle to succeed. Several current SPHHP students are Schomburg fellows.
  • For nearly a decade, the Maureen R. L. Mussenden Scholarship Fund has supported students pursuing a graduate degree in one of UB’s health sciences schools (including SPHHP) whose parents did not receive a college degree (“first in family”). One of this year’s Mussenden scholars is a student in SPHHP’s 3+2 MPH program.

You can support students from diverse backgrounds by donating to SPHHP’s new Student Diversity Fund. Your gift will help students with expenses like tuition, conference attendance, technology and more. Even more important: your support shows students from diverse backgrounds that you value them as future professionals who can improve health for people and populations.

Snapshots of three scholars

Temara Cross.

Mussenden Scholarship winner Temara Cross is working on her BS in pre-medicine and public health followed by a master of public health degree in community health and health behavior. She is a REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) program assistant and an intern at Cicatelli Associates, Inc., an organization that tackles health and social issues in communities. Cross is also a research apprentice at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Schuyler Lawson.

Schomburg fellow Schuyler Lawson is working on his doctoral degree in SPHHP’s Department of Community Health and Health Behavior. Currently, he’s the project coordinator of the HEROIC study, led by Professor Gregory Homish, PhD, a research study comparing treatment outcomes in opioid users in a specialized opioid intervention court to outcomes in a traditional drug court. His research interests are disparities in mental health, substance abuse/use, and treatment utilization and how they relate to racial/sexual minority status.

Geoffrey Mercene.

Student Diversity Award recipient Geoffrey Mercene is a third-year student in a dual-degree graduate program combining an MPH and MBA. Find out how the award made his opportunities flourish.

New courses and clearer paths to admission emerge

SPHHP’s efforts to advance racial justice and combat discrimination have resulted in varied changes at the academic level.

  • The Department of Community Health and Health Behavior offers a Micro-credential in Eliminating Health Inequities. UB graduate students and community members can gain expertise in evidence-based strategies for eliminating health inequities. This two-course sequence is perfect for leaders in a range of sectors who want to position their organizations to make a bigger impact on health inequities.
  • SPHHP is offering a groundbreaking new course that focuses on the real histories of Indigenous peoples, their cultural norms and adaptations, their traditional healing practices, and the impacts of colonization on them through the advancement of westernization. Noted health scientist Dean Seneca, MPH, MCURP, CEO of Seneca Scientific Solutions+, will teach the course, “Indigenous Health Disparities.”
  • SPHHP has eliminated the GRE requirement for the MPH and most of its other master’s-degree programs. Historically, the GRE posed a barrier to applying to and attending graduate school for people with limited financial means and applicants of color. “UB was at the forefront among accredited schools of public health in the move away from the GRE,” Orom explained.

SPHHP grows awareness of discrimination as a public health crisis

Because the SPHHP community has acknowledged the issues related to discrimination as a public health crisis, the school is also working on new ways to grow awareness and understanding of diversity and inclusion even outside its walls.

The podcast developed by one of SPHHP’s working group, “Buffalo Healthcast,” will be available to anyone through popular podcast platforms. Guest speakers will represent a spectrum of opinions, research and expertise and include scholars from SPHHP and other organizations. Associate Professor Tia Palermo, PhD, whose research looks at, among other things, the impacts of government social protection programs on health and well being, is co-host, along with Clinical Assistant Professor Jessica Kruger, PhD.

Likewise, the group published its list of anti-racist resources on the SPHHP and Office of Inclusive Excellence webpages to make them available to anyone visiting those pages, not just to SPHHP.

Last winter’s Warren J. Perry Lecture featured a renowned expert on racial differences in health outcomes speaking to a nationwide audience. Thomas A. LaVeist, PhD, dean and Weatherhead Presidential Chair in Health Equity at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, offered an evidence-based primer on how health disparities propagate, myths surrounding them and how accurate data can clarify the issue. Watch the lecture.