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The University of Minnesota is adding a new undergraduate major in public health in an effort to help meet the state's critical need for a more robust and diverse workforce to keep residents healthy.

The new program, set to launch in the fall, adds to the U's existing public health offerings: a master's degree and an undergraduate minor that has proved one of the most popular minors at the Twin Cities campus. Other institutions in Minnesota, including the University of St. Thomas, Hamline University, St. Catherine University and the University of Minnesota Duluth, offer bachelor's degree programs in the field.

It is the first undergraduate degree program in the U School of Public Health's 78-year history and would support a career field that has been in the spotlight since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Leaders in public health are needed "now more than ever," U Executive Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson wrote in a statement. The COVID-19 pandemic uncovered "opportunities for improvement across our current public health system" and exposed racial, geographic and health disparities, she wrote.

"This new program will provide undergraduate students with the skills to understand public health challenges, implement prevention strategies and address the underlying influences that determine health outcomes and disparities among them," Croson wrote.

A "tsunami" of retirements has also drained the public health workforce, which was stretched even thinner by the burdens and demands of meeting community health needs during the pandemic, said Ruby Nguyen, an associate professor at the School of Public Health.

More than a third of public health workers who left the field or were fired early in the pandemic reported some form of job-related harassment as they led sometimes-unpopular measures to combat the pandemic, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health.

In addition, recent research from the School of Public Health shows that at least 80,000 new employees are needed to meet the nation's most basic public health needs.

"There are lots of dinner-table conversations about the role of public health and public health practitioners, and many Minnesotans think there's too much influence of public health in their lives," Nguyen said. "But there's a lot of quiet, successful work in this field that we're at risk of losing if we're unable to maintain the current public health infrastructure."

The hope is that offering the major will prepare a larger and more diverse group of students to help fill open positions.

Nearly half of this year's roughly 500 U students with a public health minor are Indigenous or from communities of color, Nguyen said.

"We see that there is absolutely an interest in the field and an interest among students we'd like to recruit because of the disparities that we, and they, want to address," she said.

What makes the degree program — which will admit juniors — different from other undergraduate offerings is the broad, community-oriented approach to teaching about public health. A nutrition or psychology major may go on to work in the field of public health, but their education likely focuses on treating the individual, Nguyen said. A student pursuing a public health undergraduate degree will have courses that consider both the personal and systemic factors that determine good or poor health, Nguyen said.

The curriculum will include ways to create effective public health strategies to prevent disease, promote health in local communities and identify and eliminate health inequalities.

Program graduates could go on to work in public health education, research or data analysis roles at local health departments, nonprofits, health care systems or research facilities, said university leaders.

"We've had an overwhelmingly positive response to the announcement," Nguyen said. "I'm hearing from students saying 'I wish you'd had this five or 10 years ago.'"