Preparing Students for a Changing World

Students study anatomy in Pre-Health Program

There is a lot of movement in the healthcare field and our students are interested in being part of that change.

In fall 2013 the Meredith College Board of Trustees voted to enhance the way Meredith prepares students for one of today’s most dynamic fields: health care.

Meredith leaders stay on the pulse of employment trends and student interest to best prepare students for the job market.

“It really has to do with student demand. Our students are asking for programs that are health-related,” said Liz Wolfinger, dean of the School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and a professor of biological sciences. “We have an aging population [in the U.S.]. We’ve had a tremendous change in our health care system. There’s a lot of movement in the health care field and our students are interested in being part of that change.”

Wolfinger and other College officials have been working the past three years to identify areas where Meredith could expand academically. The group looked at Meredith’s mission, location, prospective students’ interests, employment trends, and other factors to find programs that would fit students today and students 10 years from now.

“We have to constantly be … scrutinizing and assessing our quality and relevancy,” said Wolfinger. “Our understanding of people’s learning changes.”

Meredith’s new and expanded programming includes a public health major and minor, a pre-health post-baccalaureate certificate program, and a graduate certificate in health informatics offered as part of the MBA program. All will provide students with more opportunities and prepare them for careers after Meredith.

“Health care is one of the areas that has continued to see growth,” said Francie Cuffney, a professor of biological sciences and biology department head. “There’s a lot of need out there. It’s pretty new for liberal arts schools. We’re ahead of the trend.”

The new public health major and minor are in the academic catalogue for 2014-15 but some of the classes are already being offered. The post-baccalaureate pre-health graduate certificate program is in its second year, and is already exceeding initial enrollment goals. Health informatics will become an option for MBA students in the coming months.

Public Health Major and Minor

One reason public health is so appealing for students is because it attracts students who want to work in the health industry but from a social sciences perspective rather than a traditional, clinical approach to medicine.

“It’s really interdisciplinary. It draws a lot from the social sciences as well,” said Carolina Perez-Heydrich, assistant professor of biological sciences and public health student advisor. “It’s appealingAssistant Professor, Carolina Perez-Heydrich, teaching class for lots of students. [It’s a] well-rounded education experience. Public health fits with liberal arts.”

Three tracks, Policy and Ethics, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Biological Sciences, will help students determine what they’ll do later. “Students can focus on a specific aspect of public health,” said Perez-Heydrich.

No matter which area of focus a student chooses, she will be prepared for a variety of entry-level positions in community health, community outreach, or in developing and implementing programs. Health information specialists communicate ideas. Health data analysts manage databases, analyze, and track trends. Health outreach and education is popular for graduates of an undergraduate public health program.

So far Meredith has had a great response to the new major and minor.

“The interest of students in the public health major has been exciting,” said Cuffney, who has reviewed applications from all over the country. “[I like] that we can get Meredith’s name out there in health sciences.”

Many alumnae are already working in the public health field, though a major in public health wasn’t available to them at the time they were enrolled at Meredith.

Deborah Smith, ’06, majored in social work at Meredith and knew all along that she’d want to use those skills in the health care field. Today she’s full time with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and works mostly in teenage pregnancy, and part time with Wake Medical Center as a social worker in maternity, neonatal intensive care, pediatrics, and pediatric intensive care.

“The cases I have been involved in range from adoptions, child abuse, domestic violence, and mental health concerns all the way to helping a new mother find her way through the available community resources,” Smith said. “Given the high demands of my health care profession, I have to be able to appropriately utilize crisis intervention and other skill sets effectively.”

Lauren Thie, ’07, is also at work in public health after majoring in biology at Meredith with a pre-medical focus. She is an epidemiologist at the N.C. Division of Public Health.

“My main role is as principal investigator of the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects grant,” she said. “I assess, prevent, plan for, and respond to health impacts from weather and climate such as heat-related illness, water-borne disease outbreaks, extreme weather-related injuries, and asthma. I manage the day-to-day grant operations, perform epidemiological investigations, conduct emergency department visit surveillance, and work with state and federal agencies to prevent illness from climate.”

Thie always knew she’d work in the health industry but originally wanted to be a veterinarian or physician. Once at Meredith she was exposed to several public health topics: mosquitoes, AIDS, parasitology, and medical ethics.

“When I studied abroad before my senior year, I went to Kenya with the School for Field Studies program where I continued to be exposed to public health through research and class time spent studying community wildlife conservation,” said Thie. “By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to get a master’s in public health. Once I finished my master’s [degree] at UNC, I felt I had the education I needed to do the public health work about which I was so passionate. Meredith gave me a strong base in the biological sciences and public health topics.”

Amanda Puckett, ’01, is a program manager at IntraHealth International, a global public health nonprofit in Chapel Hill.

“Public health is everything from helmets and seatbelts to a child with malaria to Obamacare. Public health is important whether you are doing it at home or in another country,” Puckett said.

Puckett is pleased that more Meredith students will be prepared for her field of work. “Socially public health is really important,” she said. “Meredith always takes into consideration the social good.”

Preparing More Students for Medical School

Andrea Marritt, assistant professor of biological sciences, has joined Meredith as director of the pre-health post-baccalaureate program, a one-year graduate certificate program for men and women who may need more science work or required prerequisite courses for medical school. It’s one of only two such programs in North Carolina.

“We help students gain the prerequisites for any post-medical field,” Marritt said.

It’s an individualized, full-time program designed for each student that includes 75 hours of clinical and service work. Some students shadow a physician or dentist. Others volunteer at health clinics. Last year, some of the students offered CPR certification courses for Meredith students, faculty, and staff. 

“It’s very competitive. We have tons of applicants,” Marritt said. “[Students] from all over want to come to school here. We are pre-health not pre-med so we can attract all health students.”

Meredith graduated its first cohort of nine students last spring. Those who applied have had 100 percent acceptance into medical schools or Ph.D. programs.

“They’ve done very, very well,” said Marritt.

There are 19 in this year’s cohort, and numbers will grow as large as 30 students for the third cohort late this year. 

One of the graduates of this first cohort is Alex Foster, who majored in sociology as an undergraduate student but decided later to become a physician. He needed to complete several science courses that he never took as an undergraduate student. Foster came from Alaska to spend a year in Meredith’s pre-health program. 

“I just felt that Meredith would give me the opportunity to apply where I wanted and I’m now in my top choice [of medical schools],” Foster said.

Foster is in his first year of medical school at the University of Washington’s medical program in the satellite location in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s a program where medical students from four underserved states study and train in their home state with the hope they’ll remain there to practice later. Foster hopes to become either a cardiologist or an orthopedic surgeon and remain in Alaska.

“The courses I took at Meredith are comparable [to my medical school classes],” he said. “I’m a good student this year because of the work I did at Meredith.”

Before applying to the post-bac program, Foster first applied to 30 medical schools and didn’t get accepted. While in Meredith’s pre-health program he applied again, this time to 15 schools, and was accepted to all three of his top choices.

“As competitive as getting into medical school is, the [pre-health] post-bac is a feather in your cap,” Foster said. “You show your seriousness [by completing the program]. The post-bac is typically for the student who comes from a nontraditional background but is still willing to put in the effort.” 

According to Marritt, the pre-health program has been created out of many classes already offered at Meredith.

“We’re using the resources we already have but are able to help different students,” she said. “It is in incredible demand at the moment. We can serve a whole new group of students without changing what we were already doing. We’ve had a very high caliber of students coming in.”

MBA Concentration in Health Informatics

Meredith’s new MBA concentration in health informatics is also in response to the demands of the workforce.

“When we talked to employers in the industry it seemed like there was a high demand for people who knew the health industry and who can understand how to collect and use data to make informed decisions,” said Dean of the School of Business Denise Rotondo.

Students coming out of the MBA program with a health informatics focus will understand the business of health operations, and data collection and organization. Through a partnership with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, students will be able to earn an MBA with a graduate certificate in health informatics. Later, a dual degree MBA and professional science master’s degree will be available.

“The demand for a person with these skills is new,” said Rotondo. “We have to be responsive to employers’ needs. We have a strong MBA program. Now we will attract a different kind of student with a broader set of skills.”

Many public health professionals, like alumna Amanda Puckett, ’01, use health informatics each day. At IntraHealth, Puckett supports, retains, educates, and trains health workers, and creates policies, all in Sub-Saharan Africa. She works on USAID’s CapacityPlus project mostly in Nigeria. Puckett takes a social science approach to her work through gender equality and equity, anthropology and sociology. She does informatics work through a human resources information system that tracks health workers and processes and analyzes data.

At Meredith, Puckett was a French and international business major, and she studied abroad in France.

“A lot of my job is business,” she said. “My classes at Meredith prepped me to do my job. The way global health is going you need to know business. It was a very strong foundation of business skills and language.”

Building on Meredith’s Traditional Strengths

Providing a foundation for students in the health field is something at which Meredith has long excelled. 

“We’ve always prepared students in traditional ways: psychology, biology, chemistry, food and nutrition, and exercise and sports science,” said Wolfinger. “These are all strong undergraduate programs.”

One example of an existing Meredith program that will work well with the new public health coursework is food and nutrition. Several Meredith nutrition grads have gone on to get a master of public health. Sometimes students use the nutrition major to get into physician, physician assistant, or nursing professions.

“I think we’re integrally involved in public health. Nutrition is changing treatment to prevention,” said Associate Professor of Nutrition Susan Fisher, who believes public health would be an ideal minor for a nutrition major.

Bill Landis, professor of nutrition and MS in Nutrition program director, also sees nutrition as an integral part of making an individual or population healthier.

“What we eat and other factors influencing wellness are inescapable when it comes to developing a healthy society,” said Landis.

Graduates of Meredith’s health programs will be ready as the world’s changing health needs expand the health care field. Future graduates will find success, just as alumnae have.

Brittany Taylor Womble, ’07, is now a physician assistant at Fast Med Urgent Care in Garner, a job she found with the help of Meredith’s Career Center. Womble majored in biology with a health sciences concentration and conducted undergraduate research, which prepared her for physician assistant school at Methodist University and for her profession.

“I tell everybody that [Meredith] really prepares you,” Womble said. “The health sciences concentration did prepare me for a lot of the classes I took in PA school. I had such a good, well-rounded education.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Meredith Magazine.

Melyssa Allen

News Director
316 Johnson Hall
(919) 760-8087
Fax: (919) 760-8330