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Postgrad: Jamie Sokol ’05

Jamie graduated in 2005 with a BA in Health and Society and a minor in Psychology. While at Rochester, she was an editor of the Campus Times and served as a research assistant at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center. After graduation, she earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, she works for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in the Bureau of Tobacco Control. This blog post is part of a continuing series about Jamie, her time at the University of Rochester, and her life post-graduation.

By Jamie Sokol

A Look at Public Health

I am delighted to see that the University of Rochester is now offering four undergraduate majors in public health. As a Health and Society major, I did my best to take advantage of the opportunities available to those of us interested in a public health career, but the course offerings were slim. Now, the U of R is set to become a leader in undergraduate public health education.

It’s a real challenge—even for those of us in the field—to define public health. At its core, public health is about keeping communities healthy. But no two communities are the same. Therefore, the definition of public health is constantly evolving to meet the needs of populations across the globe. It’s not uncommon for a public health initiative, such as providing clean drinking water or administering vaccines, to look completely different from one community to the next.

That’s why offering majors in public health makes a lot of sense for Rochester. We’re a school committed to flexibility and freedom of choice—the type of environment where an interdisciplinary program like public health can really flourish. Throw in an extensive undergraduate research program and a top-notch medical center, and it’s hard to believe that these comprehensive public health programs just came to the U of R a couple years ago.

I often meet students who are interested in public health but are unsure where such a major will take them. My answer to them is that there’s probably a lot more you can do with it than you think. Public health professionals come from a variety of academic backgrounds and experiences, which often makes us hard to spot in the “real world.” But we rely on this diversity to make public health initiatives work; after all, there’s no single factor that influences the overall health of a community. As a public health professional, you’ll be at the forefront of answering important questions about a population’s health—whether it’s determining how a disease is spread, developing an emergency response plan, or improving access to healthcare. The opportunities attached to these majors are truly endless.

My public health studies at Rochester have played a major role in shaping my career. As an undergraduate, I served as a research assistant for a multi-county smoking cessation study at Strong Memorial Hospital. By sophomore year, I was working with leaders in the field and learning the fundamentals of planning and evaluating public health programs. I took this knowledge with me to the University of Pittsburgh, where I earned a master’s degree in public health in behavioral and community health sciences (a fancy term for studying the way that social and behavioral factors influence health and illness).

Little did I know that my public health experience would eventually come full-circle. Although I’ve never been a smoker, my research experience at Rochester sparked an interest in smoking as a health behavior. For nearly three years, I’ve been working in tobacco control at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in a position that builds heavily upon the fundamental public health principles and research skills I learned at the U of R. I can only imagine that the opportunities available to students interested in public health have expanded greatly with the introduction of these four new majors. As an alumna, I’m excited to see how students will take advantage of these programs.

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