UIC grant will increase public health ‘boots on the ground’ in underserved areas
City of Chicago data shows that Chicago’s Black residents made up 43% of “first wave” deaths from COVID-19 in 2020, despite being only 29% of city residents, while Hispanic residents accounted for 48% of COVID-19 cases, despite being just 29% of the city population.
Health disparities like these have prompted the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to award the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health $1.5 million in scholarship funds from the American Rescue Plan. The new funding will support 57 Master of Public Health students over the next three years.
UIC is one of 29 institutions nationwide and the only institution in Illinois to secure a grant from the funds. UIC’s program will provide scholarships for in-state students who are committed to serving medically underserved communities throughout Illinois, with preference for those who come from traditionally underrepresented groups, specifically Black, Hispanic, Native American or tribal, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a huge amount of attrition in the public health workforce, and COVID really illustrated the importance of having a strong public health workforce,” UIC School of Public Health Dean Dr. Wayne Giles said. “Our intent is to provide a more diverse workforce that will help to get communities focused on the importance and value of prevention, provide more access to care, and implement policies to promote health and well-being, so that all people can achieve their optimal health.”
Prior to the grant award, 34% of the school’s in-state Master of Public Health students were Black or Latino, and nearly 35% of all program graduates took jobs in medically underserved communities upon degree completion.
School of Public Health Assistant Dean John Slavick helped prepare the proposal for the grant, along with Senior Associate Dean Jamie Chriqui, who led the effort, and Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Nadine Peacock.
Slavick believes UIC’s track record in educating underrepresented students and providing health workers for underserved communities played a role in distinguishing the university’s application for the grant, for which UIC received the maximum amount available from HRSA.
“We have a long history of people working in these communities, and we have good connections with the public health departments and alumni, whom we can engage for mentorship and as preceptors for internship programs for these students,” Slavick said.
School leadership credits the award in part to longstanding partnerships with the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health, along with letters of support from the Cook County Department of Public Health, the Kane County Health Department, the Lake County Health Department, the Illinois Public Health Institute, the Illinois Public Health Association, and the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, all of whom attested to their interest in engaging the scholarship students for their required practicum training as well as long-term employment.
The majority of the 57 scholarships will cover full tuition and fees for recipients, with a portion of the funds set aside for nontraditional students the program calls life scholars. These are community-funded workers who were trained by UIC during the height of the pandemic to do contact tracing and connect vulnerable individuals with services.
“This is an amazing cohort of people who may have been underemployed and now have a passion for public health and want to get back to school,” Peacock said.
The students who receive the new scholarships will receive additional academic support to help them transition to the master’s program and will be enrolled in a special public health leadership course. They also will be encouraged to take core courses in emergency preparedness, health disparities, public health geographic information systems and other topics that will prepare them to become immediate contributors in different public health roles.
“Our goal is to really prepare them with not just the formal public health training, but also the soft skills that we’ve heard from our Partner Advisory Board are so critical for students coming out of public health programs and going into the workforce, including leadership and management training and strong communications skills,” Chriqui said.
Public health workers serve communities in a variety of ways, educating residents on the fundamentals of health, diet and hygiene; connecting individuals with health care providers; advocating for community needs; and offering basic health services like vaccinations or wellness visits. They may also help to shape public policy, work as epidemiologists or biostatisticians, lead sanitation processes or determine how environmental issues impact community health.
UIC’s School of Public Health is ranked 16th in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report and it is the only accredited public health school in Illinois.