The U.S. needs more public health workers. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed that. But many students need to be able to afford the education that’s required to enter the public health workforce. That’s where a new training grant awarded to the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions comes in.
With the start of the spring semester, the school welcomed its first cohort of students receiving funding as part of a $1.3 million training grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
The training program is intended to help students — they must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents — from underrepresented backgrounds finance advancing their public health education. There are 20 students this spring, 17 of whom are enrolled in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program and three who are in one of the graduate certificate programs the school offers. Just over half of the first cohort of HRSA-funded students are the first in their family to attend college.
“This is a great opportunity for the School of Public Health and Health Professions to help train the public health workforce,” says Gregory Homish, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and principal investigator on the HRSA award to UB.
“We’re on the forefront of graduating students who possess the in-depth skills that public health employers need to improve health outcomes. Our graduates are sought after by employers because of this, and through the HRSA program, we’ll now graduate a larger number of highly skilled candidates for the workforce,” Homish says.
Naike Belizaire, a second-year MPH student who grew up in Haiti, will be one of them. For Belizaire, the HRSA funding is critical to her ability to pursue a graduate degree in public health.
“I would not have been able to graduate on time if I didn’t receive the scholarship because as a full-time independent student who works part time, I wouldn’t be able to pay for school and my living expenses at the same time,” says Belizaire, who majored in biological sciences with a minor in Africana studies at Binghamton University before coming to UB for graduate school.
Now, Belizaire is on her way to exploring the possibility of becoming a public health program manager focusing on refugee health, Black maternal child health and predicting pandemics and epidemics in underserved communities, or possibly following a research path, as she is currently a research assistant in the Department of Family Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant gaps in the nation’s public health infrastructure. It also demonstrated just how much of an influx of workers is needed in order to respond to such a public health crisis. It’s a need that will not being going away.
“Our public health workforce is in need of additional trained personnel to keep our communities safe and healthy,” says Homish. “UB is helping to address this shortage using these HRSA funds to train individuals who otherwise might not be able to afford the tuition and fees associated with graduate training.”
“Students in the HRSA program include working professionals, current students and students new to our programs,” adds Kim Krytus, PhD, assistant dean and director of graduate public health programs in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and program director for the HRSA grant. “They come from diverse backgrounds and will greatly help to diversify our local public health workforce, bringing in-depth skills in pandemic preparedness and public health crisis planning, as well as addressing health disparities.”
For Andy Canizares, the HRSA funding “definitely relieves some stress and anxiety” as he enters his final semester of the dual master’s program in public health and social work.
“I felt a sense of relief when I learned I was accepted into the HRSA cohort,” says Canizares, a Cuban immigrant whose family relocated to Buffalo from Havana when he was an infant. “I come from a low-income background and I moved into an apartment with my partner for the first time in my life before this school year started. Financial stress has been a constant in my life and for the first time, I think I can experience some peace with my financial situation, thanks to this grant,” he says.
UB’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) — which empowers UB undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in a variety of STEM and health fields — was another vital support system for Canizares, who became interested in public health after taking an introductory course as an undergraduate English major at UB. He is now in the third and final year of the MPH-MSW (Master of Social Work) dual degree program.
“CSTEP was a huge support in helping me apply for public health internships and preparing me for graduate school,” says Canizares, who is currently doing his field placement training at CCNY, a Buffalo-based nonprofit. “Their support for students who are interested in fields where they are underrepresented, like public health, is a big reason why I am even in this graduate program today.”
This story was originally published by University at Buffalo on March 6, 2023.