Practical. Applicable. Impactful.
The minor in Health Disparities, offered by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences through the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, provides students from across the university with a valuable knowledge base about current issues in healthcare. Perhaps even more significantly, the coursework explores policies and methods that can be used to confront these issues.
“Health disparities are obstacles certain groups of people face due to race, ethnicity, sex, education, residence, and much more,” explains Lina Calderon, a sophomore in the Honors Program. “In the minor, we investigate these conflicts through different historical, cultural, [and] racial contexts and find ways to address and eliminate them.”
Because of this emphasis, this minor generally draws students on pre-health tracks, but other students, particularly students majoring in journalism and communications, also show interest in this minor.
“Students in journalism and broadcasting are interested maybe in writing about health,” says Laura Guyer, PhD, RD.
Dr. Guyer, formerly a faculty member in Food Science and Human Nutrition, had left UF to work as the Associate Director at Suwannee River Area Health Education Center, but then, she returned, in 2012, to organize the Health Disparities Minor.
“We started enrolling the first students in January of 2013, and in two years, we’ve grown to be the fourth largest out of 47 minors in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—and we’re still growing,” explains Dr. Guyer.
Though the American Medical Association has recognized the need for an increased awareness and response to health disparities, UF is the only university in the nation that boasts a health disparities program.
“It really prepares you well to go to medical school; it prepares you to well to answer secondary applications,” asserts Dr. Guyer. “The students who have gone through the minor are doing very, very well in terms of being accepted to medical school, dental school [and] graduate school for public health. [Many are also] going on to clinical psychology, so I’m really excited about their success.”
Not only do many students find the knowledge gained through the Health Disparities Minor to be helpful in exams, but some also see it as a paradigm shift in their outlook on healthcare.
“A big reason why I love this minor so much is because what we learn in the class is directly and immediately applicable to our lives. The knowledge and strategies I learned in the classes have already been put to use, and I will continue to use them for the rest of my life,” says Calderon. “Things like efficient doctor-patient communication, the vital importance of taking the patient’s history into account, and broadening my understanding of different cultures are some of the most valuable [lessons]. I’ve learned to empathize better with fellow peers and analyze situations.”
Dr. Guyer designed the minor to include 15 credits. The curriculum includes two bookend courses and three courses in between. Each course meets specified requirements intended to help students gain a comprehensive understanding of health disparities.
“It’s a planned curriculum. When we put the program together, we followed best practices for curriculum design,” says Guyer. “It’s not just a haphazard assortment of courses that look like they might be interesting, but they actually meet objectives in a curriculum, and the minor has a specific purpose in mind.”
The first course in the sequence, Introduction to Health Disparities (course code WST 2322), satisfies three credits of general education requirements for social sciences and diversity. According to Dr. Guyer, about half of the students who take this course proceed to minor in Health Disparities.
“My first semester at UF, I took Introduction to Health Disparities because I wanted to learn more about what kind of problems and obstacles the U.S. healthcare system deals with,” says Calderon, a Health Sciences major following the pre-med track. “Dr. Guyer spoke to us often about other classes in the minor and they caught my attention.”
After successfully completing Introduction to Health Disparities, the minor requires students to take one course from each of three tiers, though these courses can be taken in any order. One course is selected from the category, “Health and Social Science of Minority/Cultural Groups in the US.” Another is selected from “Social Inequality and Related Theory,” and a third is chosen from “International or Global Studies.”
“This is really an interdisciplinary program, so we draw on courses from all around the university. Some [professors] have backgrounds in public health; some have backgrounds in sociology. [M]y background is in nutrition but, also, in education,” says Dr. Guyer.
The final course in the minor, the capstone (course code WST 4941C), is the practicum.
“The practicum is like a mini internship, and you spend nine hours a week in a community agency. You are working with professionals… as extensions of those professionals,” Dr. Guyer explains. “You can come in to these agencies, and then help them to tackle projects… that improve the quality of their services and programs and the quality of life for people who live with health disparities.”
Various students cover a wide range of topics and approaches in their practicum. One current student is tying together his major in journalism, his minor in health disparities, and his personal experience with diabetes to produce a video, while another student is currently organizing a conference related to the health disparities of the LGBT community. A now-graduated student who worked on her practicum with the Women’s Rural Health Project wrote and designed magazines.
“The project Let’s Talk About It is for women or caretakers who take care of women living with AIDS in Alachua County and surrounding area,” says Dr. Guyer as she pulls the magazine from a box she calls her “box of goodies,” containing projects students have completed. “This is actually a magazine that gives many of the women’s stories, because when you have AIDS, there’s a lot of social stigma and shame that is associated with living with AIDS, and it can keep you from accessing health care.”
Another magazine published by this student provided information about the Health Marketplace and accessibility of the Affordable Care Act. She also translated the magazine into Spanish and sent it to South Florida for distribution.
Even apart from the practicum, students minoring in health disparities can participate in extracurricular opportunities. For example, through the Alachua County Health Promotion and Wellness Coalition, Calderon recently started studying substance abuse in middle school and high school students.
“Health disparities has helped me be able to look at statistics, analyze it, and come up with comprehensive conclusions about who or what we are studying,” Calderon says. “I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learned in the minor immediately and practicing the valuable skills I gained in the classes.