The mission of the Department of Public Health Education is to prepare students academically and professionally to assume leadership positions in public health. Students develop proficiency in the application of theory, content, and skills to promote, support and enable healthy communities. Students learn how to assist communities in identifying and defining health issues; in designing, implementing, and evaluating effective strategies to address those issues; and in securing resources to successfully implement those strategies. We prepare our students to work in a variety of settings, including state and local health departments, schools, private non-profit organizations, hospitals and worksites in both domestic and international communities.
A secondary mission of the Department of Public Health Education is to promote the health and well-being of communities through departmental course offerings, faculty research and community service. Department faculty, staff, and students work within communities to promote life-long, self-directed behaviors conducive to health, to advocate for policies supportive of health, and to achieve a more equitable distribution of the resources necessary for health.
Health education emerged as a profession in the 1940’s. The development of standards, professional preparation, and associations has evolved over many decades. A concern for disparities in health status between black and white Americans led to the creation of the Health Education program at North Carolina Central University in 1945. Dr. James E. Shepherd, founder of NCCU, developed the new academic department with the assistance of Dr. Milton Rosenau, a pioneer in the field of public health and director of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. At that time, Dr. Shepard’s goal was to prepare black public health workers for the Southern region of the United States, and he initially organized a graduate program in health education leading to the Master of Science in Public Health.
The initial curriculum was modeled after that at the School of Public Health in Chapel Hill, and UNC professors agreed to teach the same courses here that they taught at Chapel Hill. Dr. Lucy S. Morgan, a professor from UNC who helped develop the program at NCCU and taught many of those early classes, served as the first chairperson of the department. She is one of the namesakes of the Miller-Morgan Building, which houses the Department of Public Health Education.
Some of the most striking aspects of the graduate program in health education at NCCU included efforts to promote some limited interracial cooperation at a time when Jim Crow laws were still very strong. A journal club established for health education students at both NCCU and UNC met alternately at the Durham and Chapel Hill campuses. When students met in Chapel Hill, it was sometimes necessary to pull down the window shades to avoid being harassed for racial mixing. Perhaps more importantly, black and white students were assigned to the same field training centers at local health departments and in the community, and they worked together on a variety of community health projects, learning together what was needed to effectively address public health problems.
Unfortunately, students from the two programs did not fair equally well upon graduation. In 1958, a national organization for health educators conducted a survey confirming reports that a large proportion of graduates from the masters program at NCCU were unable to secure employment as public health educators. Only 28% of the 82 graduates of NCCU’s department who completed the survey were employed in public health. Another 12% were teaching health education or a related subject. The most common reason given by respondents for not working in the field was “race.” The employment difficulties facing our masters-prepared graduates in health education contributed to a drop in enrollment, and the graduate program at NCCU was discontinued in 1960, the same year that the School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill admitted its first black students. In its 15 years, the NCCU program graduated 104 masters-level health educators.
Fortunately, NCCU’s undergraduate curriculum in health education continued to thrive despite the demise of the graduate program. Established in 1948, the Department was part of the College of Arts and Sciences until 2007, when it joined the newly established College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.
The Department Today
The Department of Public Health Education is among the nation’s leading academic institutions in undergraduate public health education. The program enjoys the unique distinction of being the only Historically Black College/University holding approval credentials awarded by the Society for Public Health Education and the American Association for Health Education (SABPAC).
NCCU’s regional and national influence in public health education practice has been achieved through a half century of growth and expansion, and we have led many prevention initiatives on a broad range of health topics, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, lead poisoning, tobacco control, nutrition and physical activity, blood and organ donation, health disparities, and health literacy. Grants secured by faculty have funded most of these initiatives. The department is one of the most productive in the university in generating research funds.
In 2007, the university approved a name change for the department from Health Education to Public Health Education. This emphasis on “public” health reflects many factors: greater public awareness of health issues and the importance of prevention; greater public access to information through technological innovations; greater perceived health threats from regions outside our own communities; and greater concerns about the global health consequences of environmental degradation, such as water and air pollution.
The term public health education underscores the fact that our discipline is an essential component of public health. It also suggests the community focus of our work. A critical way in which public health differs from medicine is that public health works primarily at the community level while medicine usually works at the individual level. Our students do their fieldwork in community agencies developing community programs. This is how we “do” health education at NCCU and this is the essence of public health.
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