A Pivotal Moment for Public Health Education

September 14, 2021
Sue J. Goldie.

Since its inception in 2015, Faculty Director Sue J. Goldie’s orientation course, Foundations for Public Health, has set the stage for countless students beginning their graduate studies at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Leveraging the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator’s (GHELI) expertise in inclusive online learning, Foundations for Public Health introduces students to a framework focusing on the fundamental principles of population health, health conditions and epidemiological trends, equity and social determinants of health, and responses from the health and non-health sector. This asynchronous course also explores numerous public health topics, from demographics and shifts in disease patterns to public health crises, like the opioid epidemic, gun violence, and structural racism in the U.S. The course is required school-wide, from Master of Public Health to doctoral and Ph.D. students—with nearly 700 individuals enrolled in this year's edition.

As a bookend to the course, Professor Goldie welcomed students during Orientation Week. In addition to highlighting key takeaways from the material, she offered advice to the incoming classes to support the next chapters of their learning journey. “It’s okay not knowing your immediate direction in the field of public health,” shared Goldie, reflecting on her nonlinear pathway. She went from practicing as an internal medicine physician to arriving at decision science after an intensive course at Stanford. As long as students are passionate learners and have a general area of focus, they will be highly successful at the school and in their future careers as public health professionals. Professor Goldie pushed students to embrace not knowing every answer and to face imposter syndrome head-on—it is perfectly safe to inquire about a confusing acronym or point out when a topic doesn't make sense.

Professor Goldie also encouraged students to identify a learning style tailored to their needs. Beyond simply taking written notes to retain information, she suggested integrating drawing, reading, and working in small groups as additional strategies to learn with and learn from others. Further, she encouraged the attendees to join notetaking and other educational workshops at GHELI to expand their pedagogical process.

In addition to reflecting on their learning needs, Professor Goldie asked students to reflect on their mentorship needs. “I want you to take an index card and jot down ten mentors by the end of the year,” she said, explaining how mentorship plays an immense role in graduate education. These ten names did not have to consist of solely tenured faculty; mentors could include a peer with more experience in the field of public health, a professor from another department, or even Professor Goldie herself. “Having a group of mentors is critical,” she shared, “as they help you improve a wide variety of skill sets across a range of topics.” Further, these mentors could have different levels of involvement in the mentorship process and still serve as an essential piece of students’ education.

Finally, Professor Goldie highlighted the importance of empathy during the 2020-2021 school year, where the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape Harvard as an institution, as well as professors and students. An increased understanding of the challenges each group faces will be critical as the Harvard Chan School adapts to today's ever-changing public health situation. In her closing remarks, and with her characteristic warmth, Professor Goldie wished the students well in their future studies and stated that help was not far—they always had friends at the Incubator.