Cure the world: Choose public health

The PH Perspective

The beginning of a new school year is a time for choices. We choose our classes, our activities, and even the arrangement of that dorm room that will be our home for the next nine months. Choices are often stressful, but Yale at this time of year is infused with a special sense of energy and excitement. With over 240 student organizations and more than 2,000 courses at this great institution, the question is not whether you will succeed but how.

Every student will no doubt choose their own path, and such diversity is part of what makes Yale so wonderful. Still, in this time of choices, I thought that I’d offer some thoughts on why the field of public health can and should be part of any Yale experience.

You have the option here at Yale to do whatever you want to do. You can make a lot of money, you can master the art of beer pong, or if you’re up for the task, you can give back to society and work to make change on some of the most pressing social issues. Given the extraordinary opportunity that has been granted you to be here at Yale, I don’t see how you can choose anything but the latter.

For those of you who do want to make a difference in a big way, I encourage you to look towards public health. By definition, the field of public health is about improving the lives of others. According to the World Health Organization, health is “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Public health in particular goes beyond the one-on-one interactions of doctors and looks instead at how to help hundreds or thousands or millions at a time. Whether working to address AIDS and malaria abroad or obesity and health insurance here in New Haven, public health issues are some of the most pressing of our generation.

Students in all disciplines are needed to make progress in public health. In addition to pre-meds, economists are needed to figure out how to pay for our increasingly costly health-care system, political scientists are needed to mobilize support for new programs, and even English majors are needed to try, like me, to put words on the human issues underlying public health. Academically, you’ll find that this field challenges you to think in new ways, and as a citizen of this country and of this world, you’ll find that working in the work is particularly fulfilling.

At Yale, students have a history of public health leadership. Last spring, for example, students from across the University came together to organize a new Global Health Week to raise awareness; over 1,300 students signed a petition to encourage the university health services to subsidize the HPV vaccine; and hundreds of students and New Haven residents joined together to support the third annual AIDS Walk New Haven.

This year, the opportunities for change are greater than ever as a rare window of opportunity begins to open in public health. With the popular release of documentaries such as Sicko, health care has become the No. 1 domestic issue on the minds of American citizens as the country approaches the 2008 presidential election. Internationally, the work of rock stars such as Bono and scientists such as Paul Farmer have built a growing awareness of the terrible health inequalities in our world. Such a window of opportunity, like the beginning of a new school year, however, is not a guarantee, but rather a choice. We can make a difference or we can watch the opportunity slip away.

True to tradition, a group of Yalies are already working to make the choice to get involved in public health easier than ever. A new Yale Public Health Coalition has formed to coordinate advocacy and action for the more than 40 public-health-related groups on campus. You may have already seen their pamphlet of public health courses and student organizations. Look for much more in the coming year.

In the end, however, the choice to act is yours. You can spend four years enjoying the ivy covered walls with little purpose and meaning, or you can take a stand for something that you believe in and try to use your unique talents and opportunity to make change on our generation’s most pressing issues. For true Yalies at least, I think the choice is clear.

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

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