As public health dominates public conversation, Brown receives record number of MPH applications

The number of applications for Brown’s master of public health program is more than double that of last year, with the largest increases coming from people of color.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are better educated in public health than ever before — the fact that “flattening the curve” is now a familiar phrase is evidence enough. And the nation has increasingly taken note of existing health disparities by race, ethnicity, geography and socioeconomic status as the pandemic affects communities disproportionately.

Academic leaders at Brown University’s School of Public Health say that the boost in public health awareness is one key factor behind a massive spike in interest in Brown’s master of public health program — a surge driven largely by applicants from groups historically underrepresented in higher education.

Colleges and universities nationally have seen 20% to 30% increases in MPH applications this year, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health reports. But the rise at Brown is even more striking: the MPH program received 948 applications, compared to 437 at this time last year — an increase of 116%. And the most dramatic increase in interest came from prospective students of color. The number of applicants who identify as Black or African American increased by 187%, and the number of Latinx applicants jumped 137%.

To stem the tide of overall applications and ensure the ability to give every prospective student the individual review they deserve, the school had to close its application period early, on March 1.

“We were getting five applications a day, then 10 a day, and the number just kept going up,” said Annie Gjelsvik, director of the Brown MPH program and an associate professor of epidemiology. “I think this shows how many people are truly understanding what public health means and how it plays out in our lives, and how they could apply public health skills to challenges in the real world.”

Meeting the moment

Even before the pandemic, scholars at the eight-year-old School of Public Health focused on advancing knowledge on pressing health challenges and enhancing population health and well-being for all —groundbreaking public health work on everything from the opioid crisis to health inequities to the quality of long-term care to HIV/AIDs to firearm injury reduction.

When COVID-19 became the country’s main focus, the dean of the School of Public Health, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, was out front and center, providing advice and guidance for not just the University community, but for an anxious nation. He believes the interest in the MPH program can be attributed to three primary factors: the global health emergency, the school’s long-standing focus on the importance of public health, and the high visibility of the work of Brown’s public health and medicine scholars.  

“We’re living in a public health moment, and focusing on public health is a University priority,” Jha said. “On top of that, there’s a lot of interesting work coming out of the school related to the pandemic as well as to other health crises, and word has been getting around.”

The nature of the Brown MPH program makes it particularly suited for training leaders to deal with these messy, tumultuous times, he said. As is the case for Brown undergraduates creating their path of study through the Open Curriculum, MPH students are empowered to engage in the design and implementation of their educational experience. They focus on one of seven public health concentrations, and take general electives and other graduate-level courses. This broad scope, characteristic of the University as a whole, isn’t often a feature of other MPH programs.

“We want to make sure that the students are growing their knowledge within public health and also building new networks and encountering new concepts,” Gjelsvik said. “Consistent with the values of Brown, the MPH program offers a great deal of flexibility and support for helping individual students craft their own educational and intellectual path.”

I think this shows how many people are truly understanding what public health means and how it plays out in our lives, and how they could apply public health skills to challenges in the real world.

Annie Gjelsvik, Ph.D. Director of the Master of Public Health Program at Brown University
Annie Gjelsvik

There is no better lesson of the far-reaching implications of a public health crisis than the COVID-19 pandemic, Jha says.

“Public health is inherently multidisciplinary — the pandemic has made this clear,” he said. “Issues have come up that remind us that exceptional leaders need expertise beyond the confines of this specific field to do public health well.”

Current MPH students often cite flexibility in the curriculum as one of their main reasons for choosing Brown. Emmanuel Greenberg decided in 2018 to earn an MPH after working in India as part of a service fellowship and witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of health inequality. He elected to pursue a generalist concentration at Brown, participated in harm reduction research that addressed the opioid epidemic in Rhode Island, and was recently accepted to medical school at Oregon Health and Science University, not far from where he grew up in Portland, Oregon.

“I’ve been able to take courses in epidemiology, health policy, medical anthropology and statistics — I’ve essentially created my own curriculum,” Greenberg said. “In the process, I learned methods in epidemiology and statistics as well as ways to think about health in a social context, all of which I can bring with me to enrich my work as a physician.”

Fellow MPH student Nour Elshabassi was also attracted to the flexibility of the program’s curriculum. Through her work on a public health intervention at a small research program in Maryland, she’d become interested in improving health outcomes for marginalized communities, and she wanted to learn more about how best to do that.

“I was drawn to the fact that Brown encourages students to take a wide variety of classes, including those outside the School of Public Health,” she said.

Elshabassi, who was born in Egypt and grew up in Northern Virginia, has taken courses in sociology, anthropology and Arabic in addition to the public health core. When the pandemic cancelled her planned Summer 2020 fellowship in Egypt, she completed an internship with Brown’s Mindfulness Center in which she worked on a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“The Brown MPH made it possible for me to shape my public health education into what I wanted it to be,” said Elshabassi, who intends to pursue public health research in the Middle East.

Greenberg’s and Elshabassi’s internship experiences illustrate what Jha calls a deep connection between Brown’s MPH program and the Providence and Rhode Island communities. Students routinely participate in projects that can directly and positively impact the mental and physical well-being of people in the region.

“We always say that you learn public health by doing public health,” Jha said. “That feels very relevant for people right now, as they see how the pandemic has affected communities of color and other disadvantaged people.”

Expanding program size, increasing diversity

In response to the massive increase in interest in advanced public health education, the MPH program will double in size this year, to roughly 90 students. Even at that size, the Brown MPH will remain a relatively small program compared to those at other schools, and program leaders say they are committed to preserving the personalized feel that students have come to expert. The school expects to substantially expand the faculty base, Jha says.

“My hope is that the very customized, individualized experience remains, but that we'll be able to do it across a bit of a broader swath of individuals, and that we’ll have more faculty engaged to make it happen,” he said.

When Jha joined the School of Public Health in September 2020, he noted the importance of expanding the diversity of the student body so that future public health professionals are better equipped to understand and tackle the largest and most vexing public health challenges.

“Bringing in more diverse voices to change the face of public health leadership will elevate and address key issues central to closing the gap in public health outcomes,” he said at that time.

Of the 948 prospective students who applied to being the MPH program next fall, 146 were from historically underrepresented groups — not only a 112% increase for the program, but just three fewer applications from underrepresented students than were received last year for all programs in the School of Public Health.

The increased diversity among applicants came as a result of a variety of new recruitment measures. The school built upon its outreach to historically black colleges and universities; offered a number of application fee waivers; waived GRE requirements; and expanded recruitment beyond the Northeast to all areas of the country.

The school also launched a Health Equity Scholars program for qualified graduates and current students of HBCUs who are dedicated to addressing health disparities. In addition to tuition support, the program provides MPH students with enhanced mentorship and leadership training.

“The Health Equity Scholarship program is just one part of our larger goal to change the face of public health leadership in America,” Jha said. “We are making it known that the Brown School of Public Health is a place where students of color, as well as students from disadvantaged backgrounds, can feel like this is not only a place where they belong, but where they can thrive.”