Helping Students Determine Community Needs, and How to Address Them

Walter Zelman, director of the public health department at California State University, Los Angeles, tapped into Commission to Build a Healthier America research to inform students as they assessed local health concerns.

    • July 12, 2012


Public health is about communities. It is about empowerment. As part of an effort to provide an experience embodying these fundamentals I created a project for my health policy students.

In the winter quarter of 2011 my undergraduate health policy class undertook an assessment of health and health care on our campus and in the surrounding community. Our campus is very diverse and largely Latino. The surrounding community is heavily Latino, very low income, and has one of the highest rates of uninsured individuals in the country.

To assist in the project I requested, and received, hard copies of various papers from the RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America. The hard copies were much appreciated by the students and were assigned as readings in the course.

The students conducted a poll on campus. Among other things, they found that over 40 percent of students were uninsured. Based on their class discussions, polling, and research, they concluded that the greatest health problems facing the campus and the surrounding community were nutrition/obesity, and access to care. Each student wrote a paper on a policy challenge for the campus or community.

In the following quarter I supervised seven students (some from the previous class and others) who were tasked with writing a full report based on the work of the policy class. They conducted additional research. They interviewed faculty members and campus officials. They produced a 30-page report on Health and Healthcare on the CSULA Campus and in the Surrounding Community. The report focused on the two issues identified by the policy class as most critical to the campus and the community. The students presented their findings, with slide show to a group of public health students. In keeping with the empowerment theme, most of the recommendations called on students, not administrators, to undertake various projects or tasks.

With some funding help from our dean the report was published this year and distributed to administrators and many faculty.

In the spring quarter of 2012 we took the project to the implementation level. A group seven interns reviewed the report and focused their work on trying to implement three of the recommendations: create an exercise walkway around the campus; improve the quality of the food choices on campus; and encourage California’s new Exchange to create a fast-track methodology for enrolling California State University and community college students in the new Exchange.

In pursuing these goals the students met with university administrators, contacted students in other departments (mostly Kinesiology and Nutrition). They sent a memo to the Exchange. Each student wrote a paper detailing how far they had gotten, further steps that would be necessary and (as most of them were graduating) how the effort could be carried on with new personnel.

In May, one of the students who wrote the report, myself, and the seven students trying to implement the report gave a presentation at the Pat Brown Institute, a public policy institute on campus. The audience included faculty, students, and representatives of non-profit organizations in the community.

The project has been a great success in terms of raising issues and helping students to see how to determine needs and go about addressing them. The challenge may be in carrying forward and turning over responsibility as students graduate.

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