Shopping can be good for (public) health

By the third day of shopping period, you may have already chosen your courses for the semester. Maybe you don’t have a clue. Either way, this column is for you. I’m not going to describe which courses are good for your health — although excessive stress certainly doesn’t help — but I am going to explore how the public health perspective can and should guide a Yale education.

So far, I’ve been sharing simple ways that we can improve the health of our community, but so far it has been easy to avoid responsibility. This semester, however, I have a new challenge: Take advantage of your Yale education and become a public health leader.

It’s no secret that you will be a future leader of the world. But before you pat yourself on the back, recognize that this is a scary thought. You may use your power to fight for the good of others, but many will use their privilege merely to perpetuate the status quo and tacitly promote inequality and injustice. The choice is up to you, but the consequences are far-reaching. We all know a few Yale alumni who have not lived up to their potential. The question is, will you?

If no, stop reading. But if you are willing to use your leadership to further social justice, the next question is how. Action is of course essential, but in a world where Yalies only make up 0.00005 percent of the population, we need to go one step further. We need to take advantage of our liberal arts education to acquire the ways of thinking necessary to engage others and enact real change. You won’t find such instructions in any Blue Book, but our generation’s challenges require us to look beyond distributional requirements to find solutions to common problems.

Public health, in particular, underscores the need for liberal arts leadership. Today, we are all too often let down by leaders who fail to address health as an interdisciplinary endeavor. In the United States, poor coordination has led us to spend trillions on an unnecessarily complicated system that continually fails to provide basic health services to millions of Americans. Abroad in developing countries, poor communication between donors, NGOs and local government cripples the health-care infrastructure needed to deliver essential prevention and treatment. Everywhere, barriers between different disciplines are getting in the way of positive change. We, as a community of future leaders, need to find a better way.

The great promise of public health is that by definition it is the essence of interdisciplinary. To truly improve the health of the public, we need not only premeds, but also English majors and economists, sociologists and statisticians. We need everyone, even the skeptics. Public health is about the well-being of all us, and so all of us need to bring our unique perspective to the greater challenge.

What does this have to do with your course schedules that are due next week? Well, now is the time to take the first step. Whether you’re a starry-eyed freshman or a second-semester senior, you have an opportunity to explore public health in a new way. Take a class if you can (see the “Public Health” section of the Blue Book), but if not, at least spend some time getting involved in the numerous activities and talks on campus. The freedom that you have here for such vital learning won’t come so easily in the working world. I may not speak for everyone, but I can say from my own experience that public health was the best decision I ever made.

Fortunately, I have a feeling that I may not be alone. Gauging from the standing-room-only crowd of students who came out at 9 a.m. on Tuesday for Elizabeth Bradley’s new “Health Care in the U.S.” course, it is clear that many students want interdisciplinary study around today’s most pressing challenges, such as health. Yet unfortunately, as I’ve written many times before, Yale’s course offerings in this vital area just don’t meet the demand. While I know that the administration is committed to adding a health studies major in the future, the same barriers continue to delay positive change, even within our bastion of liberal arts.

So, whether you accept it or not, I challenge students and faculty alike this New Year to be the kind of leaders that Yalies should be. The world of public health and of public service more broadly demands it. I will continue to engage you every other week with a new perspective from public health, but it is up to all of us as a community to take action.

Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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