April 10, 2020 ~ Education

Education is another one of the themes for National Public Health Week. Today, we have the pleasure to introduce you to Meghan Mason who is an Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Director at St. Catherine University. For the past 6 years, Meghan has worked in the areas of Epidemiology (specifically in Infectious Diseases) and Marginalized Urban Populations. Meghan is currently working on a project with Tehout Selameab titled Addressing Workforce Disparities by Improving the Academic Resilience and Professionalism of Health Science Students through Structured and Targeted Supports that will be presented at this year’s upcoming MPHA Annual Conference!

How did you get involved in this area of public health? Was it something you knew you always wanted to do?

I knew I wanted to improve the health of underserved populations, but that clinical practice wasn’t for me. A mentor at my undergraduate institution recommended doing an MPH in Epidemiology, and I was hooked!

Describe your favorite public health project and/or experience with public health.

I’m really excited about a long-term project I’ve been working on with the health committee members of the National Network to End Family Homelessness. It focuses on screening for housing instability and best practices in primary care for families and children experiencing homelessness. This has the potential to provide primary care clinicians with timely and relevant tools to support patients.

What professional accomplishment, to date, are you most proud of?

Last year, Elizabeth Dunens and I authored an article on our partnership between the Community Work and Learning office at St. Kate’s, and the service-learning experience our students have in their Foundations of Public Health class. Many students enter our program without a clear answer to the question “What is Public Health?” but through this service-learning experience, coupled with a Community Health Assessment assignment, it helps students conceptualize the social determinants of health, and introduces them to organizations that support public health in the Twin Cities.

We are incredibly excited about your presentation at our upcoming Annual Conference where you will touch on addressing workforce disparities by improving academic resilience of and professionalism of health science students. What makes your position at St. Kate’s uniquely positioned to address this issue?

The St. Catherine undergraduate public health program draws heavily from immigrant communities often experiencing the burden of health disparities. In 2017, 60% of public health undergraduate students were students of color (St. Catherine 2018 Fall Census Data). Additionally, 14% of public health students were parents, 52% were first-generation, and 64% were Pell Grant recipients (St. Catherine 2018 Fall Census Data). Today’s student also reports high levels of stress and challenges managing stress. The 2018 Saint Catherine College Student Health Report showed 44% of students reporting being unable to manage their stress level (2018 Saint Catherine College Student Health Report).

In the same survey, among students reporting having health or personal issues that impact their academic performance, 59% identified mental health as their health issue (2018 Saint Catherine College Student Health Report). Similar to national trends, Saint Catherine students enter the public health undergraduate program from various disciplines or from no discipline, presenting a wide variation in baseline skills, competencies and ability to meet the academic requirements of the public health major (Arnold & Schneider, 2010).

We also have programs ranging from a 9-month pre-baccalaureate certificate (Community Health Worker) to a hybrid model in the College for Adult BA/BS program and a “traditional” undergraduate program in the College for Women, the total student body across our programs is approximately 150 students. This size and diversity of students provides us with a range of experiences that we believe encompass the barriers and challenges to academic success. On the implementation side, we are small enough to develop and pilot supports for our students to increase their academic resiliency and professional development on a reasonable timeline within a representative sample of the future public health workforce.

Are you willing to share a short preview of some of the challenges that students identified as barriers to their academic resilience?

While we have additional focus groups to come, it seems that having the right resources at the right place, at the right time, is critical. We have plenty of great supports on campus but making sure students can access them efficiently is important. Additionally, helping faculty, staff, and peers identify and encourage resiliency and professionalism in our program might give students the boost they need to make it through their coursework.

Despite improvements in increasing the diversity of students, there still appears to be a pipeline effect which results in less diverse faculty members at large research institutions. Is this true at St. Kate’s as well?

Yes, we do struggle with getting diverse applicant pools for our faculty and staff positions. That said, we are fortunate to have a diverse range of working health professionals in Minnesota who offer their time in the capacity of adjunct faculty. One of whom, is Tehout Selameab, who really had the idea for this project because of her intimate knowledge of our student population through teaching our Senior Seminar course. 


Is there any role for professional organizations (like MPHA or APHA) to help support these students?

We certainly encourage students to attend MPHA events and the annual meeting, APHA seems a little more difficult for our students to participate in given the cost of traveling and attendance to the meeting. Anything that brings MPHA members to campus in the form of guest speakers, facilitating networking, and connecting students to life as a public health professional would be welcomed! Per my response to Question 2 – meeting students where they are at, and at the exact time they want to be engaged, seems to be the best way to support their continued success.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, many students are finishing their semesters from home. Do you know if there are concrete measures that your school has taken to ensure that all students have access to the resources that they need to finish out the school year?

A few things: my understanding is that students can borrow laptops for the remainder of the semester, we do have some emergency funds available for students, and the food shelf is helping to provide food to students. All of our student support teams are adapting to supporting students in an online or phone environment, including our Multicultural and International Programs and Services office, Disability Resources and O’Neill Center for tutoring support, Academic Advising, and Counseling Center to name a few. We have made our incomplete policy more flexible for the semester, and our University Curriculum and Policy committee is actively reviewing our pass/fail grading policy as well.

Are there any pictures that resonate most with you from your work that we could share in our interview post? The group photo is from one of the races I participated in as a run mentor with Mile in My Shoes, which brings the power of running to people experiencing homelessness and other barriers while changing perceptions and changing lives.

This interview is by the Minnesota Public Health Association for National Public Health Week (NPHW) 2020.

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