New global and community health majors available this fall

A health worker examines a child during a community health clinic

UC Santa Cruz students who want to build a future with better, more equitable health outcomes will have the option to declare one of two new global and community health majors, starting in fall 2022. 

A Bachelor of Arts in Global and Community Health will train students to address social determinants of health, fostering skills that will enable them to serve as future leaders in health care, health policy, public health, and community organizing. And a Bachelor of Science in Global and Community Health will offer two concentration options—biomedical or public and community health—that will prepare students for patient-care careers or roles in health administration, public health, and advocacy.

College Nine, which is affiliated with the Social Sciences Division, will serve as the administrative home for the degrees, offering a one-stop office for advising, as well as career counseling. 

Both new majors will begin with a combined intro course, called Foundations for Global and Community Health, that teaches students a shared set of terms, analytical approaches, and frames of reference for health issues from across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Exposure to these diverse approaches to health will also help students decide which of the B.A. or B.S. pathways best fit their goals and interests.

Students on the B.S. track will focus more heavily on STEM courses that are often required by medical schools and other graduate-level patient-care training programs. Students who choose the public and community health concentration will also have opportunities for non-STEM electives. And those on the B.A. track will build health competencies across bio-environmental science, political-cultural contexts, and a mix of quantitative, qualitative, and humanities methods.  

At the end of the major, students from both degrees will reconvene for a capstone course that invites them to combine their diverse skills and knowledge specializations for a team project, in which they’ll research the problems and possible solutions around a real-world challenge in global and community health. Professor of Politics Matt Sparke, executive director of the global and community health program, said this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration is needed to address emerging health threats, and UCSC’s new majors aim to equip students for that future. 

“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to global and community health challenges,” Sparke said. “That calls for many disciplines to come together to address these problems, to understand their histories, and to think about ways we can intervene and mitigate the suffering and death that is caused in health crises—both locally and globally.”

Tackling health issues at the source

The new global and community health majors advance a vision of health that works to reduce inequities in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.  

“Global forces impact our local health outcomes, so you can't truly understand local health without understanding those forces,” Sparke said. “This is not just about the spread of disease globally; it’s also about the global economic, political, and cultural conditions that can either foster ill-health or well-being.”

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated many of these forces, Sparke says. Insights from UCSC faculty and other experts around the world revealed how the pandemic’s impact has been more severe for marginalized and socio-economically vulnerable groups. Wealthier countries also had better access to vaccines, and public health organizations warned that resulting gaps in immunity could allow for continued global spread of COVID-19 and the emergence of new variants. 

The new global and community health majors incorporate lessons like these about how the health prospects of communities are tied to global and local power relations. Students will also learn how human health is based on planetary health and is affected by challenges of the climate crisis, pollution, and species loss. And they’ll pair a broad global health perspective with understanding of how to imagine and implement solutions at a community level, with the involvement of community partners.  

“Global health programs are most effectively organized when they include local community ownership and public-sector involvement,” Sparke said. “They can’t be top-down global edicts. They have to be locally meaningful, locally connected, and locally partnered with people, in order to become inclusive and sustainable.”

The new global and community health majors will also encourage a proactive approach to health that considers not just how to treat disease, but how to support elements of well-being that can prevent illness. Anthropology Professor Nancy N. Chen, an executive committee member for the global and community health majors who leads an affiliated student fellowship program, says a crucial element of well-being is a focus on community. 

“People might do everything right—eating the right things, seeing a health practitioner when they can—but where we live has a huge influence on our health, including which health services we have access to,” Chen said. “We need to be mindful of not just individual actions to take care of ourselves, but how we can take care of each other by making sure that we’re providing for well-being at a systemic level.”

Training tomorrow’s health leaders

UC Santa Cruz’s long history of research, education, and impact in social justice, biomedical science, community studies, and environmental sustainability positions the campus well to train the next generation of leaders in global and community health. The program will also draw on the campus’s strengths in interdisciplinary education. 

Faculty instructors for the program will include influential researchers in health-related fields from across the Physical and Biological Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities Divisions. Students will have opportunities to learn directly from nationally trusted voices on topics ranging from health statistics to globalization and food justice to neglected tropical diseases and cancer and genomics. In recent years, the university has also expanded its base of expertise, with the addition of 11 new global and community health core faculty members who were hired to support the program’s development. 

Valerie Cortez, an assistant professor in the Molecular, Cell, & Developmental Biology Department, is one of those core faculty members. She studies viruses that cause diarrheal illness in young children, and she’ll be teaching a new epidemiology course for the global and community health majors. She was excited to join the program, in part, because her own training in both epidemiology and molecular cell biology instilled in her an appreciation for interdisciplinary education. 

“I’m thrilled that this program is bridging the basic sciences and social sciences, because I think we need more folks who can appreciate both of those perspectives,” she said. “Medical tools generated in basic science labs and tech companies can only go so far, and they are best implemented with consideration of people's behaviors and structural barriers.”

Cortez said she’s looking forward to hearing what questions students have about global and community health and supporting them as they explore career opportunities. Many health-related professions are expected to grow at rates faster than the average for all occupations, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. UCSC’s global and community health majors can help meet the need for doctors, nurses, social workers, mental health specialists, public health and policy researchers, community advocates, and more. 

“We want to educate the next cohort of local, national, and global health leaders in a rigorously interdisciplinary way,” Sparke said. “Ultimately, we want to help our students identify multiple pathways for contributing to the health of their communities and to prepare them to be change agents after graduation.”