NU students help shape the future of Evanston public health

Rebecca Wurtz

Public health in Chicago is not getting better, according to infectious disease expert and Northwestern University associate professor Rebecca Wurtz. But in Evanston, change is on the horizon, thanks to a recent partnership between Wurtz’s Introduction to Public Health class and the Evanston Health Department.

Wurtz, who served as president of the Chicago Board of Health from 1999-2002, proposed the partnership with Evanston’s health department last winter, as a practical and hands-on experience for her students.

“Part of what this course is about is to get students, whether they go on in public health or not, to be aware of the role of government and individuals in the community in promoting health,” Wurtz said.

In the previous school year, her students had worked with Northwestern’s student health service to define some issues that they wanted to learn more about among the undergraduates. The success of the project prompted Wurtz to take the idea to the next level.

“I knew that the Evanston Health Department was understaffed,” she said. “So, I thought maybe we could do the same sort of community health assessment on behalf of Evanston, and the students could have the experience of really working in public health.”

Every five years, the health department draws up a plan to address issues in the Evanston community, such as chronic disease, substance abuse and mental health. For the current plan, the city created a survey to collect data about community perceptions and needs.

Wurtz’s students analyzed this data, researched national trends, and identified community resources. They then proposed ways to address Evanston’s health needs in the future, such as creating Facebook pages, websites and maps, which are in the process of being published.

“The students came in with a good world health background, but not as much local experience,” said Carl Caneva, division manager for the Evanston Health Department. “So, it was eye-opening for them, and good for us to have people from outside the organization looking at this for the first time.”

Recent graduate Jay Shiao, who minored in global health, took Wurtz’s class after a friend recommended it.
“It was very applicable, very hands on, and it helped us apply what we had learned in all these public health classes to a very current situation in public health,” Shiao said.

The 21-year-old plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health, and is in the process of applying to medical schools. Because of Wurtz’s class, he is also working part-time for Cease Fire, a violence prevention organization run by UIC professor and epidemiologist Gary Slutkin.

Wurtz said this coming school year she will work in conjunction with professor Elizabeth Barden to create an even greater partnership between Northwestern students and the Evanston Health Department.

“[Barden’s] students’ job in the fall quarter will be to assess a problem in the community, and then my students’ job in the winter quarter will be to propose solutions and to actually create some versions of those solutions,” Wurtz said. “We’re trying to make it interesting and relevant for students who take either class, or both, and to actually give Evanston a more sustained service.

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