First Class

UM’s first Bachelor of Science in Public Health graduating class learned how to help a community heal.

From UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 25, 2014) — This spring, four School of Nursing and Health Studies students did what no University of Miami student has done before—graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree. A core course in their senior year not only reinforced their commitment to public health, it enabled them to help a most vulnerable population before they even graduated.

While enrolled in the Field Practicum in Community Health, students Cristina Ballesteros, Juliana Prieto, Esther Augustin, and Stephanie Maestri visited the Miami-Dade Community Action and Human Services Department’s Coordinated Victims Assistance Center every Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. This walk-in domestic violence agency offers wraparound services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. Clients complete an intake form and danger assessment that estimates their risk for domestic violence homicide. Working under their preceptor, Assistant Professor Emma Mitchell, the students analyzed the responses.


“The answers to these questions allow for the abuse to be assigned a ‘danger level,’” Augustin explains. “We also looked at whether demographic factors, such as victims’ original country of birth, have any influence on their danger level.”

Augustin and her classmates also implemented a survey that assessed critical gaps in health knowledge and helped them to build a health education program for CVAC clients. This is just one component of several research studies led by Assistant Professor Rosa M Gonzalez-Guarda, Ph.D. ’08, who has been working with the agency since 2009.

“The survey responses reveal that a number of [CVAC clients] want to learn about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections,” Prieto says. “Nutrition is also a big area they want to know more about, not just for themselves but so they can properly feed their children once they leave the abusive relationship.”

Ballesteros and Prieto delivered a presentation on the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, while Augustin and Maestri taught participants about nutrition and demonstrated how to make healthy, affordable meals.
“We designed the course to focus on eating healthy using foods this population actually eats and can afford, rather than lecture about the benefits of organic foods, for example, or something else that wouldn’t be realistic for their socioeconomic status,” Maestri explains.

For our B.S.P.H. students, the CVAC field practicum is driving home the importance of taking cultural and economic nuances into account for every patient population.

“I’ve definitely become increasingly open-minded and more culturally aware through the B.S.P.H. experience,” Ballesteros says. “I’ve learned that identity really is related to health and that you have to understand where people come from in order to best serve them.”

Ballesteros, who last year completed the prestigious Summer Research with NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) program, hopes to pursue doctoral studies and is on a mission to encourage students from marginalized populations to enter the field.

“Because we as Latino women have the worst outcomes in various categories of health, we need to be fully represented among those who are leading the search for solutions,” Ballesteros says.

Maestri became interested in health care in her sophomore year of high school after traveling to Ecuador through a community service project and working with Florida’s migrant child population. A member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, Maestri graduated with a minor in business administration and plans to pursue her Master of Public Health. She hopes this will lead to a career in hospital administration or in the government sector, where she can influence policy implementation.

Prieto, who graduated with double majors in public health and psychology and a minor in education, changed from the B.S.N. to the B.S.P.H. program after volunteering at a hospital with pediatric cancer patients and discovering that her goal is not to care for sick children and adults but rather to prevent illness at the population level. She credits UM President Donna E. Shalala’s U.S. Health Care Crisis: Politics and Policies course with exposing her to different viewpoints about health care during the Congressional debates on the Affordable Care Act.

“I didn’t realize how big a problem health insurance is in this country,” Prieto says. “Many people lack health insurance and therefore don’t go to doctors until they’re really sick, so a large segment of the population is not preventing illness, just treating it.”

Augustin has worked as a licensed practical nurse since graduating from high school but decided to pursue a public health career because “public health helps you understand the ‘why’ of health issues…figuring out why people’s health is bad and why they’ve let it deteriorate.” One of seven siblings, Augustin has an older sister who is pursuing a doctorate in psychology at UM, a father who is a pastor, and a mother who is a licensed practical nurse. Besides wanting to follow in her sister’s footsteps as a ’Cane, her Haitian heritage played a role in her decision to enroll in the School of Nursing and Health Studies.

“UM is involved with Haiti in many areas aimed at improving the health of my ancestors’ homeland,” Augustin says. “Haiti needs public health expertise.”

Whether or not they enter the program with prior global health experi¬ence, B.S.P.H. students have an opportunity to gain a firsthand understanding of international health care systems by participating in the school’s Global Health Mini-Mesters. While in Chile during winter break this year, Maestri shadowed a nurse midwife and social worker. She was particularly impressed by that country’s focus on prevention and early intervention.

Despite beginning just four years ago, the B.S.P.H. program at the School of Nursing and Health Studies is growing quickly. There are presently 15 students enrolled, 134 applicants for the 2014 freshman class, and 84 students from across the University taking the school’s public health minor. The program’s most recent accomplishment is the approval of a new “4 + 1” combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program. This partnership with the Miller School of Medicine will allow academically qualified students to complete their B.S.P.H. and M.P.H. or M.S.P.H. degrees in only five years.

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