Years ago, two UNC Schools joined together to prepare students who are passionate about preventing problems and to train those who are committed to solving them. Since then, more than 100 graduates have passed through the doors of the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the School of Social Work to earn a dual master’s degree. It’s a significant milestone for the 25th anniversary of a program that continues to produce leaders at the community, state, national and global levels.
“I think what has sustained this program is strong student interest,” said Kathleen Rounds, co-director of the dual degree program and chair of the School of Social Work’s doctoral program. “Students who apply to the program want to be part of an exciting learning experience that integrates public health and social work in courses and field placements. They also recognize the value of earning degrees from these two nationally, highly ranked schools.”
In fact, the dual degree program enrolled 10 new students this year—its largest class. Demand for the degree is largely based on students’ collective desire to create change, said Anita Farel, program co-director and associate chair for graduate studies in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the School of Public Health.
“Most of the students in public health come in with tremendous ideals, and they have a vision for how things could be better at the community level,” Farel explained. “Our social work students are very similar. So it’s just a wonderful opportunity to merge the two groups of students who have similar goals.”
The innovative program focuses on macro practice in maternal and child health and provides interdisciplinary training in program planning, management, evaluation, policy development, and advocacy work. Students are required to complete 94 credit hours, including summer block field placements in public health social work. They also participate in a series of intensive interdisciplinary leadership workshops, which are offered through the Public Health Social Work Leadership Training Program. The federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau funds the program.
“There’s a lot of energy around the leadership training,” said Rounds, who directs the leadership program. “So many of our students go on to work in leadership positions here in North Carolina as well as across the country.”
Over the years, dual degree graduates have landed top posts with state and local health departments, community and migrant health centers, voluntary health agencies, hospitals and medical centers, child advocacy agencies, policy organizations, and international health programs. In these roles, graduates have focused on a myriad of social and health issues, including adolescent health and well-being, substance use and abuse, school-based programs, violence prevention, healthy birth outcomes, and health disparities.
“Our students definitely graduate with a very powerful combination of skills that gives them the credentials they need to keep opening doors,” Farel said.
Julia Gaskell, MSW/MPH ’85, quickly learned the need for a dual degree while studying sociology at another university in Minnesota. “I discovered that anybody who wanted to work with babies and children in social work would also end up facing a lot of public health issues. So I thought a dual degree would be a good thing to have.”
Once enrolled at UNC’s School of Social Work, Gaskell helped launch the social work-public health degree program—and became its first graduate—with support and guidance from Kermit Nash, a former School of Social Work professor, and Elizabeth Watkins, a former maternal and child health professor at the School of Public Health.
Following graduation, Gaskell immediately put her training and academic skills to work as a pediatric oncology social worker at Duke. For the past 17 years, she has applied her knowledge to her role as a school social worker in Chapel Hill.
“Since I’ve been with the schools, I’ve come across a lot of public health issues,” she said. “It ranges from a lack of immunizations for children to working with families who lack affordable health care.”
As a student, Helen Dombalis, a 2010 dual degree graduate, was “passionate about the intersections of community health and social justice.” Today, she uses that same passion to guide her work as a policy associate with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. In this role, Dombalis works closely with farmers and nutrition advocates to promote the growth of food that is “in harmony with our ecosystem” and to improve consumer access to healthy sustainable foods. Such work further illustrates the natural collaboration of social work and public health, she said.
After 25 years, much of the dual degree program’s uniqueness can be credited to the strength of the relationship between the two UNC Schools, Rounds and Farel agreed. However, the program’s overall success, they added, can be attributed to recruiting and enrolling some of the best and brightest students.
“Our students, they’re just so smart and so energetic,” Farel said. “And they’re so committed to making a difference.”