GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Ranelle Brew ‘breathes and lives’ for public health, she said. She’s been working in the field for more than 20 years, and established the department of public health at Grand Valley State University back in 2013, which she now chairs.
She’s also an associate professor, and said as bad as the pandemic has been, GVSU is seeing an uptick in interest and applications for their public health program.
“At Grand Valley, I did look at the data from last year to this year, and we have a 33 percent increase in applications from 2019 to 2020,” Brew said during a Zoom interview with FOX 17 on Thursday morning. “That’s a pretty significant uptick of numbers. So, we enroll our students every year in the fall, and so we doubled the number of students that enrolled in our program in 2020.”
Brew tributes the rise in applications and enrollment to the coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in mid-March. Since then Michigan has had a total of 303,000 cases and over 8,500 deaths. As tough as it’s been, people are talking about it, she said.
“There's no better marketing for a program than the pandemic because it’s just simply putting public health out in the forefront of everyone’s conversation,” said Brew, who has two master’s degrees in the field. “So, I think that’s really what’s happened here is that folks are talking about public health everywhere, in their homes, and it’s becoming more of a popular term.”
Nursing is becoming popular as well, especially at Grand Rapids Community College where they’re seeing an increase in applications and interest, said the program's director Shelly Richter. They’re also seeing an increase in interest, people asking all sorts of questions from the length of the program to where students do clinicals.
“I think it’s really exciting,” Richter said during a Zoom interview on Thursday. “It not only demonstrates their interest in serving others but it also demonstrates a knowledge of what’s going on in the community, how they can help, wanting to dig in.”
One of their highest priorities, she said, is their students mental health. Professors and other staff members spend a lot of time talking with their students and debriefing about what they’re seeing and feeling while at hospitals or other locations. They understand the work can be frustrating, especially for working nurses tending to patients fighting the virus.
“I think you’re seeing what you want to call a burnout. I think we’re seeing that in not just nursing but other fields,” Richter said. “But, I think that’s also the camaraderie with nursing, the support from your colleagues and your peers. I think that’s one of those pieces that yeah I might walk away one day feeling frustrated, but then I’m walking in the next day saying ‘alright guys we’ve got this.’”
Western Michigan University said they’re seeing a surge in interest in both their undergraduate and graduate public health programs. In 2020 they received 74 inquiries about the master's program. However, for 2021, they’ve gotten 474 inquires.
Brew believes the pandemic is a great time to be in public health, she said. Typically she’s always answering the question ‘what’s public health?’ However the pandemic is inspiring the youth to seek it professionally and she’s ready to teach them.
“I want to make sure that the next generation of public health professionals are strong. This experience that we’re in right now, COVID 19 is something that we’ve never seen in 100 plus years of public health,” Brew said. “I’m just really passionate about making sure that we have strong public health professionals for the future of our field and health care in general.”