Home » EKU receives grant to launch program to help underserved areas

EKU receives grant to launch program to help underserved areas

Will train environmental public health students to work in high poverty areas

RICHMOND, Ky. (Sept. 24, 2014) — Eastern Kentucky University has received a $246,934 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA), to launch the Kentucky Environmental Public Health Traineeships Program.

The goal is to attract more students from underrepresented populations and high-poverty areas into the growing field of environmental public health and then prepare them to work where their services are most needed.

EKU logoOver a three-year period, EKU’s Master of Public Health-Environmental Health Science (MPH-EHS) program will place 42 of its students in local and state health departments in medically underserved regions of the U.S., particularly central Appalachia and Kentucky’s urban areas.

Because of a nationwide shortage of master’s-level environmental health science professionals, MPH-EHS graduates typically pursue opportunities in the private sector and public health agencies in more affluent communities, said Dr. Jason Marion, project director and assistant professor of environmental health sciences at EKU. “The limited financial resources of health departments in Appalachia and some urban areas have made field placements in these communities difficult.”

MPH-EHS students at EKU currently complete a three-credit-hour field experience, in some cases unpaid. With funding from the grant, student trainees will obtain hands-on work experience working alongside environmental health professionals in health departments for nine weeks, meet their three-credit-hour requirement and receive $4,000 for the placement, with the hope that the students gain a passion for continuing their service after graduation in a similar setting.

“By HRSA providing this program, student trainees will get to experience the type of rewarding work that is done at the local health department, and in many cases, be able to work in their home communities throughout urban and rural parts of Kentucky,” Marion said. “In return, the profession likely gains the addition of a person with local knowledge, who may gain a passion for public health that goes beyond the financial rewards of working for a large corporation. The additional $4,000 and, for the second and third years of the program, the addition of $750 per semester of classwork may help students who otherwise could not afford an MPH to come to EKU.”

To promote a culturally diverse and aware workforce, the program will give preference to trainees from central Appalachia, emphasizing recruitment of students from one of the nation’s five federally-designated Promise Zones, areas of persistent poverty identified by the White House.

“No similar program in the U.S. actively recruits for MPH-EHS students from the region,” Marion said. “We will also give preference in recruiting and selecting ethnically or racially diverse trainees for limited slots, specifically by selecting underrepresented students and enhancing recruitment among upperclassmen attending Kentucky State University and other historically black universities throughout the southeast and midwest.”

Many of the student trainees will be placed in health districts serving EKU’s 22-county primary service area, which includes some of the poorest counties in the U.S and is plagued by many of the health issues that often accompany poverty. “I am hopeful that, as we place more public health professionals in eastern Kentucky, more individuals and community leaders will realize the importance of the public health discipline for preventing disease and affording Kentuckians with a higher quality of life.

“In the nation’s healthiest communities,” Marion continued, “there has been a shift from emphasizing the need for more medical doctors to treat disease to a strategy that continues to recruit high-quality medical doctors and other medical professionals, while also embracing the one health concept that strongly emphasizes disease prevention through environmental health, health promotion and community health education. By increasing awareness of the value of disease prevention through public health, I am optimistic communities will work diligently to prioritize funding models and solicit funds for permanently placing our graduates in the local health departments with salaries that are a bit closer to the salaries in the communities and industries hiring our graduates.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be more than 13,000 new EHS positions by 2022 as well as more than 4,200 new occupational health and safety professionals.