June/July 2011
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Tulane University

Tulane enrolls about 7,800 undergraduate students, all of whom take service learning courses as part of their general education. (Photo courtesy of Tulane Publications)


Teaching Public Health through Service Learning at Tulane University

Although many graduate-level public health programs are designed to produce field-specific practitioners, the undergraduate program in public health at Tulane University is a broad-based academic degree, says Jeffery Johnson, associate dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and director of undergraduate studies. “We want our students prepared to go on to many fields … because it’s a foundations degree with a liberal arts perspective that can really contribute something to society.” In keeping with that mission, the Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH) curriculum features a broad range of liberal arts and sciences course requirements, as well a sequence of upper-level public health courses distributed across seven departments. But the Tulane BSPH also differs from other many public and allied health programs in its service learning component. This aspect of the program is part of a university-wide push for more experiential learning and community engagement that includes a two-tiered academic public service requirement for all undergraduate students. Although both the BSPH program and the public service requirements are relatively new, class offerings and community partnerships have grown quickly and continue to expand. Now it its sixth year, the BSPH program already has 320 declared majors and over seventy minors, and a network of community partners both in New Orleans and abroad.

The Renewal Plan: Integrating Community Engagement with the Undergraduate Curriculum

While Tulane has offered graduate degrees in public health since 1912, plans for an undergraduate program were not finalized until 2003. The first students were to begin courses in the fall of 2005, but enrollment was postponed when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August of that year. In the aftermath of the storm, Tulane instituted large-scale changes in its undergraduate curriculum and in the ways the school interacts with the greater New Orleans community. President Scott Cowen’s renewal plan created an Undergraduate College through which all students enter the university, regardless of major. The plan called for a greater emphasis on public service and community engagement throughout the university, including the establishment of university-wide public service requirements and the creation of the Center for Public Service, which oversees the new requirements and other service activities.

Under the two-tier requirement, undergraduate students complete an introductory service learning course within their first four semesters at Tulane. Katie Houck is the assistant director of the Center for Public Service and coordinates student programming, placing students with organizations whose needs align with students’ interests and abilities. The first tier is “meant to give students a foundation for what service learning is—how community engagement can enhance their learning,” she says. The courses put students to work in the community, but they also feature an intensive academic component, with writing and reflection guided by a professor. These courses also prepare students for the more individualized second tier, for which they might take an upper-level service learning course with a more disciplinary focus, complete an internship with a community partner, conduct community-based research as part of an honors thesis or independent study, or participate in a service learning course through a study abroad program. The second-tier requirement is intended to be “more tailored to their academic interests, their service interests … so they have this basis for what it means to use service and reflection to grow in their academics through the first tier, and they use that to grow in their disciplinary studies.

   Service-Learning at Tulane
   Engaging in public service has given many Tulane students a stronger sense of connection with the New Orleans community, which has aided in student retention, one administrator says. (Photo courtesy of Tulane Publications)

“Our program, from my own perspective, is in many ways in perfect harmony with the goals and objectives of the renewal plan in regards to service and making a difference in the community,” Jeffery Johnson says. “[The graduate public health program] has always had a rich tradition of international public health work, as well as a focus on local communities. But the addition of a dedicated cadre of undergraduate public health students has allowed us to do even more at the local level to impact and lead the charge to rebuild New Orleans.” BSPH students become engaged in the public health framework and service learning as soon as they’re campus—or earlier, if they choose to participate in service programs during the summer before their first semester, Johnson says. The undergraduate public health program has also continued the school’s international tradition with courses such as “Social Aspects of Infectious Disease,” which placed students in community clinics in Malaysia. These kinds of courses introduce students to global public health issues, but also challenge them to apply what they are learning in complex socio-political contexts. For instance, two students in the “Infectious Disease” course assisting at an HIV/AIDS hospice run by Catholic nuns had to contend with not only the difficulties of caring for terminally ill patients, but the political and social complications of assisting a Catholic charity in a predominately Muslim country. Closer to home, the BSPH program plans to begin a collaborative project with Nunez Community College, a two-year institution based in Saint Bernard Parish, a region southeast of New Orleans that was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The program will have students from both schools working together on community service projects while completing parallel coursework at their respective institutions.

Civic Engagement and Social Innovation across the Disciplines

Service learning is fundamentally an academic requirement, says Vincent Ilustre, executive director of the Center for Public Service. “As much as we want to help the community, we also wanted to stay true to Tulane’s mission: to educate our students,” Ilustre says. But community-engaged learning has to be a reciprocal relationship, Houck stresses. Community partners are not obligated to accept Tulane students who wish to work with them on internships or research projects. Students, meanwhile, are encouraged to see community work as an integrated part of the curriculum. “What I do is help them see how the research that they’re doing can be a benefit to the community and have them reflect on why they are doing this research,” Houck says.

Tulane is currently developing new programs to create more incentives and more outlets for students to get involved in public service. Stephanie Barksdale is the head of Tulane’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiatives, a series of programs began in 2009 to encourage social innovation at Tulane. The initiatives are aimed at students “who want more, who want to see themselves on the path to social change,” Barksdale says. Competitions for funding, some of which are reserved exclusively for Tulane undergraduates, give students the chance to win startup money for new community-based ventures. Johnson, who says BSPH students are some of the most active on campus, hopes these funds will give upper-level public health students the opportunity to expand projects and build on what they’ve learned in their coursework. Another program, the Urban Innovation Fellows, brings in social entrepreneurs who serve as mentors to students working on upper-level service projects. One of the 2011-2012 fellows, Johanna Gillian, is developing food-education models on the Grow Dat Youth Farm, an urban-farming program for young adults in New Orleans, and working with BSPH students interested in health outcomes related to farming.

Civics Outcomes and the Future of Community-Engaged Learning

Ilustre says many of the results Tulane hoped to see by instituting the service requirement have come true. Applications to the university have risen sharply post-Katrina, and a desire to be part of the rebuilding of New Orleans seems to be a large part of that, Ilustre says. Data collected by the Center for Public Service also suggests the renewed focus on community engagement has helped retain students. “They’re staying because of that involvement,” Ilustre says. “Students feel like they’re part of the larger community.” Students seem to be getting more civically engaged, too, he says, and a longitudinal study that has been following a cohort of students since their freshmen year and tracking changes in civic attitudes is expected to produce new data next year.

Ilustre is also excited about the changes he sees in faculty, in particular BSPH faculty, who are becoming more involved in research projects with local community partners, in turn opening up more opportunities for undergraduate students. Meanwhile, the Social Entrepreneurship program is working on plans for a “coordinate major” that would bring together students from various disciplines to address social issues. “We imagine that when we have a coordinate major, every class you take would have a community or service learning component, or at least the majority of them,” Barksdale says. Those courses would focus on social problems from a “collective impact” perspective—“this idea that you can really create more change and solve problems if you bring a bunch of voices together,” Barksdale adds.

Johnson echoes Barksdale’s sentiments about bringing together students from different majors, pointing out that the first two courses of the BSPH sequence count as electives for other arts and science programs. Having students from other majors represented in the classroom changes the dialogue, and it also helps with recruitment. Johnson hopes that, as with service learning throughout the university, BSPH offerings on and off campus will expand and evolve. While certain foundational courses will remain constant, Johnson hopes to “keep our curriculum relevant to the needs of what’s going on locally and globally.” Barksdale agrees, noting that while the university has in many ways bounced back from Hurricane Katrina, that’s no reason to stop looking for more ways to keep students engaged. “We want to continue to be more innovative,” she says.” We want our students to be prepared for change and economic downturns and the need to create their own jobs—they may not find a job, but they could go on to make their own.” As AAC&U suggested in its 2007 report, College Learning for the New Global Century, all students should learn to connect their knowledge with real-world problems, and to approach those problems with a sense of personal and civic responsibility. Tulane’s BSPH program is designed to help students meet those goals.

To learn more about the Tulane BSPH program, visit the program website. To learn about Tulane service learning requirements, consult the Center for Public Service website; information about social innovation programming at Tulane can be found at the Social Entrepreneurship Initiatives. For more AAC&U resources on civic learning, see the Civic Learning web page. For a summary of AAC&U’s research on the impact of service learning and other high-impact practices, see Five High-Impact Practices. For additional research on the campus climate for civic engagement and personal and social responsibility, see reports from the Core Commitments initiative.