Global health degree program launches at UCSC, connecting disciplines to address big questions of our time

A flyer for the May 7 Global Health Day in the University of California system
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

Starting this fall, UC Santa Cruz students can major in a new global and community health program, with about 100 expected to opt in. Politics professor Matt Sparke, the program’s executive director, spoke to Lookout about the unprecedented challenges in the field, and how he’ll draw from faculty across the campus to address them. 

Global and community health.

Matt Sparke

Matt Sparke, a UC Santa Cruz politics professor and executive director of the campus’ brand-new global and community health program, says the program’s philosophy is in the name.

“We’ve put community in the title — global and community health,” he said. “That does make a difference, because it means that we are trying to draw on the lessons from global health, including from scholar-activists like [the late] Paul Farmer, who said that we can only make really big strides in global health improvement if we work with local communities and partner with local community partners in an ongoing way.”

The new undergraduate program, a few years in the planning, could welcome as many as 100 students this fall. The intention, following much of the interdisciplinary legacy at UCSC, is to confront diseases like COVID-19 in context with the many social, political and economic factors swirling around such outbreaks.

Students choosing the Bachelor of Science will select a biomedical or public and community health concentration which will help them pursue work in patient care or public health. As for the Bachelor of Arts, the pathway for students will focus on social determinants of health and prepare students for jobs in health policy, public health and advocacy.

Eighty-five faculty will teach courses for the program, and Sparke said he hopes that number will grow.

The faculty — across numerous disciplines, including sociology and molecular, cell and developmental biology — will be affiliated with the Global and Community Health program.

The program will have one full-time managing director.

UCSC takes some inspiration from a global health program launched about six years ago at UC San Diego, according to Sparke. But what sets UCSC apart, he says, is the diverse social sciences faculty and the commitment to social justice on the Santa Cruz campus.

In addition, UCSC, unlike UCSD, doesn’t have a school of medicine.

“What I’ve been saying to people is, I really truly believe that’s an opportunity,” Sparke said. “We don’t have a bunch of physicians to turn to or epidemiologists to turn to. Nobody at the university has a sort of a professional claim on owning health as a research area or teaching area. It means as a result that we can collaborate across the different parts of the university much more easily. And I think, right now, more than ever before, that’s a real asset for us.”

Sparke came to UCSC in 2017 after 22 years at the University of Washington in Seattle. Originally from Tonbridge, England, Sparke says his interest in health starts with where he was born: in a National Health Service hospital, part of the United Kingdom’s publicly funded health care system.

His academic studies began with geography and globalization. He studied at the University of Oxford, then at the University of British Columbia before joining the International Studies and Geography faculty at University of Washington. Recently, he co-authored a paper with health policy researcher Owain Williams describing neoliberalism as a contributing factor to causes and outcomes of the pandemic.

Some of the university’s multidisciplinary research will be on display this weekend as UCSC co-hosts the UC-wide Global Health Day summit.

UCSC hosts the session beginning Saturday, running from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The day will include speeches from UC faculty and administrators, poster presentations showing UC campuses’ latest research and breakout sessions.

One breakout session focuses on “Uniting Campuses Across the Globe to End Sexual Violence through Research: The Global College Campus Violence Prevention Network,” and will talk about the network’s violence prevention efforts across the nine UC campuses.

A total of 53 posters will be on display from 12 p.m. until 1:40 p.m. in the College Nine and Ten University Center. Visitors will see research such as the UC Santa Barbara paper titled, “The Santa Barbara County Latinx and Indigenous Migrant COVID-19 Response Task Force.”

The full program can be found here.

Finally, after a day of breakout sessions and talks, Rupa & The April Fishes will perform a free concert from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Quarry Amphitheater.

The Global Health Day summit is open to community participation, either for free virtually or on a sliding scale for those attending in person. High school students can attend the event for free, tickets for graduate and professional students cost $20, tickets for UC faculty, staff and alums cost $25 and general-admission tickets cost $30. For more information and to register for the event, click here.

Ahead of the Global Health Day summit and the launch of the new program, Lookout talked to Sparke about how the program will help prepare students for jobs in the health industry, how this program is different from others and how the diversity of the staff will be both a challenge and a strength.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: What are the kinds of jobs that students can pursue coming out of this program?

Matt Sparke: Well, it’s not just going into being physicians — that’s definitely part of the picture. We want to go on helping the students who want to become physicians get the kind of undergraduate training that they need to do that. That doesn’t have to be all natural sciences, by the way. Many people go into the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and medical school with a social sciences background, and we want to help those students really create a well-rounded undergraduate experience for themselves.

But beyond medical school, and some of the other pre-vocational, health-related schools like pharmacy, dentistry, beyond that, public health is another big area. We really want the degrees to support people who want to go on to take a master’s in public health and then go into public health work. One of the tracks in the BS program is a sort of a pathway through the BS that focuses on public health. And the other pathway is a more biomedical pathway through the BS. Beyond those areas, there’s a vast amount of work in the United States connected to health that is not happening directly at hospitals and in public health agencies. It happens in businesses where there’s no need for consultants on health, healthy workplaces, and so forth. It happens in tourism, it happens in the farming sector.

One of the assets we have at the university that I think we really need to build on is the UCSC farm, which has a long history of pioneering work in organic farming and healthy food systems. If we can turn our undergraduate students that have an understanding, and who have a passion for that kind of thing, and can connect it with wider debates over health, so much the better. And then public officials, we want people to be able to go on into jobs in government, or in education, that are jobs where they need to be knowledgeable and articulate about health. A lot of local governments, including Santa Cruz, now talk about health in all policies. And that means everything from managing the police force to managing waste and sanitation, to public safety. So there’s a lot of areas where students can go once they have a background in health. We’re building a curriculum that is very interdisciplinary, and it’s about putting health and well-being in its social and economic and cultural contexts.

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Lookout: How many students will be admitted into the program, and how does this compare to other programs?

Sparke: Well, they’re not going to be capped. We’re anticipating an initial class of around 100 the first year in part because one of the things that we’re doing to create the BS degree in global community health is to remake an existing degree, called human biology, that already has a lot of students in it. We are anticipating a lot of those students coming over into the BS in global and community health, but then they will be joined by a bunch of students in the BA. UC San Diego — they launched theirs about six years ago — they’re the best corollary. They started off with a minor. And then they started a BA and then added a BS just two years ago. We draw a lot of lessons from theirs.

The thing is, you have to play with the cards you’re dealt. And different campuses have different expertise, clusters and different faculty with different courses. So we’re working with what we have, and it does look a bit different. [UCSD has] a big management course they’re able to use in their degree, for example; we don’t have anything that quite matches that. But we’re doing things that they’re not doing, we have a lot of strengths in the humanities that we can draw upon. We also have some really cool classes in engineering that we can draw on linked to the Genomics Institute. We have some faculty doing work in neglected tropical diseases — there’s a great course taught by Bill Sullivan in that area.

Lookout: The university hired 11 new core faculty members to support the program. Can you talk about their roles and how they’ll be part of the broader campus?

Sparke: I don’t want to oversell it [laughing] — they’re hired to do a lot of other things as well. And one of our opportunities/challenges in the years ahead, and the immediate years ahead, is to really forge a community out of all these new faculty. They’re not coming into one department — they’re going to be scattered across two divisions: physical and natural sciences and social sciences. And then within them, chemistry and biology, sociology, anthropology, Latin American and Latino Studies, economics — hopefully in the future we can hire in psychology, maybe earth systems, maybe in environmental studies. But we need to forge a community across all these departments and across these two divisions. And so I see that as one of our pressing priorities.

Now, we’ve got the approval to roll out the undergraduate programs. We need to make sure that our faculty feel like they belong to a common mission in delivering this program for the students. I think it will happen quite naturally. I know a lot of people are really enthusiastic and excited about it. But we need to do more to create our community. Hopefully we can do it in conjunction with our Santa Cruz neighbors as well, by having more events on campus around global community health that can involve the community. We’ve got some amazing people who live in Santa Cruz, that are retired physicians, retired public health professionals, who have a lot of expertise.

Lookout: How will this program fit into the university’s goals as a Hispanic Serving Institution?

Sparke: We really want to fit in tightly with that effort to serve Latinx students. Many of them are also first-gen students. Many of them are coming from communities around Salinas, going south from there, the Pajaro Valley, and the Central Valley, where they’ve seen community health needs not being met, where their families are saying to them, “If you’re going to university, it would be great if you could come back with skills that serve your community.” And we want to be there to help them deliver on that hope — and I think guide them a bit as well and tell them that there’s multiple ways of doing it. One of the challenges historically, that my colleagues report with the human bio degree, is that it’s been seen as the pre-health degree. And it’s like, for kids from Latinx backgrounds, they’ve come in with that sort of mandate to try to become doctors to go and serve their communities, and some do and succeed. And we’ve got alums that do just that work. And it’s wonderful when it works, but oftentimes it hasn’t. Part of the problem is high school quality, in some of these communities, hasn’t been good at preparing the students to thrive in entry-level chemistry and bio classes.

We want to create an environment with these new degrees where students have right from the beginning a multitude of the pathway options in front of them. So if they don’t necessarily find that they can succeed well, in those entry-level bio and chemistry classes, they can find another way forward that still enables them to contribute to health in their community — and this is, for me, really important.

As a social scientist, I don’t want that to be seen as the second backup option. We do these students a disservice if we don’t give them multiple options. As a Hispanic Serving Institution, I’m hoping also that we can create an environment with these where the knowledge that they bring with them from their communities, including their capacity to speak Spanish fluently, but much more besides that, their knowledge of Latin America, their knowledge of popular culture, is actually valued as a resource in the classroom as an asset, which it is, and enables us to create classroom conversations where students from diverse backgrounds can learn from each other. Students do learn from each other. And all we need to do as professors is create an environment where that co-learning happens. And I think we’re going to be able to do it with these two degrees more easily than with some other degrees.

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