MISSOULA – When TraJon Cotton visited his home in Sacramento during his break in studies at the University of Montana, he noticed his mother would go to the gym but then cook and eat dinner too late at night – backfiring on her goal of losing weight. Using what he had learned in UM’s public health courses, he suggested she meal prep and eat earlier instead of sleeping on a full stomach and impeding weight-loss.
“The public health field teaches you so much in everyday life – how to eat, how many hours to sleep – and just instills it into your brain,” said Cotton, now a senior in UM’s bachelor’s degree in public health. “It gives you so much knowledge about things you don’t even know are wrong.”
And as a first-generation college student, Cotton likes bringing everything he learns back to family members like his mom, to inspire even the smallest changes.
UM recently launched its Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree – the only undergraduate degree of its kind in Montana. From teaching students how to make simple health adjustments in their lives, to preparing them for today’s major health challenges, the program aims to train the next generation in the science and art of health promotion – at a time when it has never been more essential.
Annie Sondag, professor in the School of Public and Community Health Sciences, housed in UM’s College of Health, said the new degree reflects a shift in American medicine and patient care.
“Health care in America is in the midst of a paradigm shift from a system focused almost entirely on treatment to a system focused on both prevention and treatment,” Sondag said. “Governmental organizations, hospitals, primary care centers, insurance companies, nonprofits, university wellness centers and corporate employers increasingly recognize the value of prevention.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for health educators and community health workers focused on teaching healthy behaviors and accessing health services are projected to grow 13 % from 2019 to 2029.
Accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health, UM’s versatile public health degree program focuses on five core areas: biostatistics, epidemiology, social and behavioral sciences, health services administration and environmental health sciences.
“This degree meets the needs of students interested in developing the necessary skill set and knowledge base to respond effectively to public health challenges in rural and urban settings with agility, professionalism and innovation,” Sondag said.
Students in the program also learn about current health challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects on certain populations. Cotton said the pandemic has put people from racial and ethnic minority groups – which includes people of color – at high-risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19.
“The social determinants of health have historically prevented minorities and low-income populations from having fair opportunities for economic, physical and emotional health,” he said. “It is good that those in public health are aware of these discrepancies because they are going to have a better understanding dealing with the less-fortunate populations.”
A transfer student from Oregon State University, Cotton joined the Griz football team after arriving at UM last January. As a cornerback, he fits in 6 a.m. workouts, classes that are mostly still in-person, homework and now an internship. He credits Sondag, his mentor, for helping him balance his schedule and pursue his academic goals, which include completing a master’s degree at UM in public health.
Cotton’s internship with the Missoula YMCA this semester allows him to connect with kids up through the sixth grade, who participate in free after-school activities. The internship will put to use his knowledge and program-planning skills from Sondag’s Theory and Practice of Community Health Education course.
“The public health field is pretty much always interacting with people and building those relationships, so that’s kind of what took me to the field,” Cotton said.
Sondag said volunteer opportunities for public health undergraduates are abundant, as well as service learning experiences (required for coursework) and practicums and internships locally or abroad.
“Public health jobs offer competitive salaries and provide chances to improve lives and help communities overcome obstacles,” Sondag said. “Some public health professionals embrace opportunities to travel and aid communities abroad, while others choose to stay closer to home, working alongside local governments and community-based organizations to extend lifespans and improve the quality of life for residents.”
Brooklynn Bohannon, a sophomore in the UM public health program, also has brought her public health expertise to the community. With her classmates in Sondag’s Community Health course, she helped develop activities for students in the Flagship after-school program at C.S. Porter Middle School.
“We created a program that was designed to get kids to be active, find community and learn productive ways to deal with stress during this ongoing pandemic,” Bohannon said.
She said her passion lies in understanding other cultures and extending her knowledge broadly to help populations that lack supplies, education or governmental support. She recently decided to pair an elementary education major with her public health coursework to help her meet her goal of becoming an international teacher and health care worker with the Peace Corps or Teachers Without Borders.
“I hope that considering this past year, I will be able to gain more exposure to education and health care systems,” Bohannon said. “We have seen how millions of people's well-being has been sacrificed due to COVID and disparities across the U.S. I hope that my small part in all this can change the life of even just one person.”
For more information on UM’s undergraduate public health degree, or other College of Health programs, visit https://health.umt.edu/.
Contact: Annie Sondag, professor, UM School of Public and Community Health Sciences, 406-243-5215, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Courtney Brockman, UM News Service