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Sunday, December 5, 2021

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The School of Public Health celebrates 40 years this week.

School of Public Health: 40 Years of Serving the Community

Alumni represent 75% of the public health workforce in San Diego County, and interest from new students is soaring.
By Padma Nagappan

Contact tracers making calls, students working on reducing cancer disparities, researchers leading HIV studies in Uganda — these are just a few examples of how San Diego State University’s School of Public Health makes a positive impact, locally and globally.

The school turns 40 this week and has been celebrating the milestone with events that highlight how it has evolved over four decades. A point of pride: 75% of the public health workforce in San Diego County are its alumni. 

It also has deep roots in the community established with interventional programs for diabetes, obesity and cancer, and expanded with the COVID-19 work that’s happening today.

“Our history with the community is longstanding,” said Eyal Oren, interim director of the school. “Our students are dedicated to improving population health and community health. We have faculty hyper focused on local communities, which is where change happens. They’re service-driven and motivated to improving people’s lives.”

Over the past decade, researchers have received roughly $200 million in grants from national and local agencies. The school is ranked among the top 20% of public health schools by the U.S News & World Report.

Prominent local alumni include San Diego County’s public health officer Wilma Wooten, M.D., deputy health officer Eric McDonald, M.D., and many others who hold responsibilities at local, state and national health agencies.


Founded in the 1980-81 academic year by inaugural director Doug Scutchfield as the Graduate School of Public Health, it recruited talented faculty who were well connected with government agencies and launched research and community health projects, as well as a Master of Public Health program. 

In 1986 it moved into the iconic location at Hardy Memorial Tower, launched its first joint doctoral program in epidemiology in 1990, added undergraduate programs in 2006 and dropped  “graduate” from its moniker in 2018. 

The school offers a bachelor’s and master’s in public health, and a joint Ph.D. program with the University of California San Diego. Programs span biostatistics, environmental health, health management and policy, epidemiology, health promotion and behavioral science, global health, as well as a public health master’s for UC San Diego’s preventive medicine residents. Through SDSU Global Campus, the school offers an online MPH program as well. 

Key Partnerships

The school has a close partnership with the County of San Diego’s Health & Human Services Agency (HHSA) on many programs including the Live Well Initiative; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; and the COVID-19 contact tracing contract.

“The SDSU School of Public Health has contributed to our community in so many ways, not only as an innovative academic and research institution but as a vital partner in applied population health,” said Nick Macchione, director of the county HHSA. “This has never been more clear than now during this pandemic as the School of Public Health partners with the County of San Diego to use the community health worker model for contact tracing to strengthen health equity in our efforts.”
“This is but one example of the many significant ways the school has stepped up as a community partner,” Macchione added. “That is what makes the school extraordinary — the connection of academic insights with population health improvement in real time.”

The school also partners on key projects with federally qualified health centers, and grant funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Naval Medical Research Center to design and implement local programs with national relevance.

Notable among the grants it has received is one for nearly $20 million, the biggest in SDSU history, for HealthLINK, a center focused on improving health equity. Additionally, the Institute for Behavioral and Community Health is a long established institute focused on evidence-based interventions to reduce health disparities in oral, physical and sexual health. The Institute for Public Health specializes in high-quality community-based research and evaluation projects that assess and improve the public’s health.

Through the SDSU-UCSD Cancer Partnership, the school partners with the UCSD Moores Cancer Center to improve health equity in cancer through research, and by training the next generation of underrepresented cancer researchers. 

The school’s students have taken advantage of international learning and experiential opportunities in India, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa and many other countries through its global health partnerships.

Growth Mode

As public health has taken on renewed prominence during the pandemic, applications to the school’s programs have increased by 60% within the last year. 

The school will launch a new master’s in epidemiology program as well as new Global Campus offerings. Three new faculty joined the school in fall 2020 and four more will join this fall. 

Growth has been near constant, with “2020-21 being the year of public health,” Oren said. “There’s a lot for us to be excited about and to look forward to, and COVID-19 has definitely increased interest in this field.” 

Acknowledging the role the school has played in the local community, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors proclaimed April 6 to be SDSU School of Public Health Day.

“The four-decade history of the SDSU School of Public Health is nearly unparalleled,” said College of Health and Human Services dean Steven Hooker. “Its faculty, staff, and students have consistently been community engaged and addressed the health needs of the most vulnerable populations from local to international settings.”

“The school’s influence has been felt in K-12 schools, churches, businesses, homes, local governments, and civic organizations,” Hooker added. “The 40th anniversary of the school should be celebrated by all of us for the tremendous impacts already made, and for what will be accomplished over the next 40 years.”