New global health major at UW-Madison introduced in the midst of global pandemic

The major was not introduced as a reaction to the pandemic, but the pandemic has offered a case study for classes.
Published: Feb. 15, 2021 at 6:15 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2021 at 6:24 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Like many college students, UW-Madison junior Zari Dehdashti switched majors a few times in the hopes of finding the courses that would best fit her interest. It wasn’t until the fall of 2020 when she found a major that made sense for her.

“When this major was announced, I was so excited because this is all I really want to do,” Dehdashti said. “Before that, there weren’t really any majors that fit me to a T the way global health does.”

Dehdashti is one of many students who were immediately interested in the global health major when it was first offered this past fall. According to Susan Paskewitz, director of undergraduate global health programs in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the foundational class for the major immediately filled up, meeting its 150 student capacity.

“I think we have about 100 students who have formally declared that they want to be in this major, so we’re immediately seeing a lot of interest,” Paskewitz said.

As Dehdashti and Paskewitz explained, global health can be a broad area of study, including a wide range of topics.

“Global health really takes a more planetary level look at all these interconnected systems and the way that things that happen in dramatically different parts of the planet actually can affect our health right here at the local level,” Pasketwitz said.

For example, Paskewitz described looking at infectious diseases across the entire world. In comparing diseases through different areas of the planet, Paskewitz said they can examine differences “through a lens of thinking about what are the root causes for these differences in different places, and how we can address the causes of differential burdens of disease.”

“Global health also looks at things like health inequities, we look at the ways that you can use methods of public health like epidemiology and biostatistics to address these complicated problems,” Paskewitz said. “We look at questions like environmental sustainability and how changes in our environment are affecting our health.”

For Dehdashti, who is currently doing research on campus about Lyme disease, and has an internship this summer in immunology, global health catered to her interests.

“A lot of students who come into college who are really interested in healthcare and science feel really entrapped in this pre-med bubble, and they think that medical school is the only route for them, but it’s not,” Dehdashti said. “People don’t realize how many careers in science there are.”

In the midst of the coronavirus, careers in science are in the spotlight. However, while the major was offered in the thick of the pandemic, the program was not created in reaction to it. Paskewitz said the major has been years in the making.

" The seeds and origins of creating this new program for students predates the COVID pandemic,” said Todd Courtenay, program manager and advisor with the global health programs at UW-Madison. “It’s not a response to that but certainly I agree that the timing illustrates the need for student learning in this area, and opportunities.”

Now, coronavirus can be a case study in the classroom.

“We were going to be able to use the pandemic as a very real time example of many of the themes that we wanted to share with our students,” Paskewitz said. “Everything on how globalization affects the risk of disease in our new backyard, to how we develop interventions, and some of the challenges that we face when we try to introduce those interventions.”

“The relevance and importance of this has only been sort of hit more home for them, and I also think it has raised the bar,” Courtenay said.

That’s been the case for Dehdashti, who said now more than ever, the pandemic has put things in perspective.

“It sort of reinforced for me the relevancy of my field. It made me feel that what I’m doing is really important, what I’m doing is potentially life saving. There’s no other thing that could have happened to make me realize that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The global health major encourages students to gain field experience, and caters to a range of careers including healthcare, research, and policy, to name a few. For more information on the new major, click here.

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