Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and Portland State University (PSU) School of Public Health

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Why we are all public health practitioners in this time of COVID-19

Dear SPH students,

This past National Public Health week I opened the SPH Student Leadership Council’s annual Public Health Conference with a combination of joy and pride. I was filled with joy, because there is nothing I love more in my job as your Dean than seeing you thrive as scientists and as leaders. It was a reflection not only of the excellence of our students, but of the quality of our academic programs, the strength of our community partnerships, and the commitment of our exceptional faculty.

I was filled with pride because, while this year has given us so many challenges in so many ways, the conference was a testament to how you rose to collectively and collaboratively overcome these challenges. I am proud of the Student Leadership Council, led by conference chairs Jennifer Ku and Menolly Kaufman, with help from committee members Jessica Tran and Christina Jaderholm, and how quickly and seamlessly they transformed a traditional oral and poster presentation into a highly successful and engaging virtual event.

I was equally proud of how the presentations reflected the passion SPH students have for their areas of study, and their recognition that the work of public health professionals can change lives. Some students addressed social issues such as addiction, child safety, and firearm deaths. Others took on environmental health, examining water quality, lead exposure, and the effects of climate change. Still others demonstrated their commitment to social justice, studying health equity issues affecting populations, including Native Americans, Latinx, those living without safe and reliable places to call “home,” those living in our jails and prisons, veterans, and the residents of our many rural communities. These many topics represent the tremendous breadth of our field and the critical issues we address.

Congratulations to everyone who made the conference happen, to the SPH students recognized for excellence in leadership, research, and service, and to the over 70 students, faculty, and community partners whose work was presented. I told the student leadership group, that they could run this school tomorrow if they had to. Based on your tenacity and leadership, I know that you will lead this school, other schools and many transformative initiatives during your career.

Of course, the annual SLC conference happened at a very unique time in the story of public health and of our world. COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century pandemic. This is a great challenge, but also a great opportunity and every one of you has a role to play, not just in the future, but right now, today.

Each of you is already a public health practitioner. By attending a virtual classroom, you are practicing social distancing and are part of the reason we are flattening the curve. By amplifying and modelling the message of our public health authorities, you are a public health educator. By influencing your fellow students, friends, and family to modify their own behaviors, you are a public health leader.

Our students are also responding to the effect of COVID-19 beyond our virtual presentations and classrooms. Recently, we had more than 200 students and faculty express interest in volunteering with the Oregon Health Authority and with county health departments across the state. Some are already being deployed to support the response to COVID-19, particularly in the effort to map outbreaks and track where the virus is going. These students are learning in real time what public health is designed to do, with the guidance of the leading public health professionals in our state.

This is public health in action! This is why you joined this field and today, more than ever, you can see from the evidence around you the tremendous need for public health professionals today and tomorrow.

In this time of shared purpose in public health, you can rest in the knowledge that you made the right career choice. This is where your commitment to, and your passion for, this work is needed the most. As I have said before, I am confident the future will be yours.

Stay well, stay home, stay safe.

Dean David Bangsberg