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Building healthy communities across Idaho, one community at a time

Lillian Smith headshot
Lillian Smith, divisional dean of Boise State’s Department of Public Health and Population Science

Fall is always an exciting time to be around Boise State and the College of Health Sciences.

Spend some time with Lillian Smith, though, and you’ll come away convinced that she, and the Public Health and Population Science program she’s shaping, are where a lot of the action is.

The department’s mission is to strengthen and improve the health of all Idahoans and the communities wherever they live, work and play through excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service.

Smith, divisional dean of the recently rebranded Boise State Department of Community and Environmental Health, comes to the assignment of designing some of the university’s most popular programs and degrees having herself achieved career success in all three of those areas.

Recruited to the university in 2016 after more than two decades in practice and academic public health, Smith intends to ensure that the Boise State approach is anything but old-school. It’s not that the old schools of public health across the country haven’t made fundamental contributions; it’s just that Smith knows that the challenges communities and residents face call for bold change in higher education and for graduates prepared to work in different ways.

Under Smith’s leadership, PHPS has reshaped the undergraduate programs based on recommendations from the Idaho State Board of Education and Complete College America.

“During my first year at Boise State, I was fortunate that the state board was assessing how to improve rates of Idahoans going to and completing college,” she said. “We were able to use those findings and address curricular issues that had been contributing to high attrition and student debt.

“Comprehensive student success became a goal across our department.”

Moving forward

The Public Health and Population Science program means to move the conversation forward in substantial and contemporary means. The undergraduate programs are based on a T-shaped model for learning and development that is also used in industry. The horizontal bar of the T is breadth – skills such as communication, teamwork, and resilience – that students working in health-promoting organizations need. The vertical bar is the emphasis on specializations. The curriculum is set up to allow students to have a common experience in their first two years and to explore what their passions are for their final two years.

The “public health” emphasis is for students who want to want to work in their communities, while the “population science” focus and health studies emphasis is for those who may want to be clinicians or work within health systems, and PHPS has a Pathfinder to help students figure out their degree choices.

Given the complexities of the times, the design is the right and logical progression of the university and college offerings. At a very broad level, silo thinking gets siloed results, Smith knows. And such critical challenges as clean air, clean water, and access to nourishing food – front-and-center matters to the majority of the world’s inhabitants, along with many residents of Idaho – will not be solved by experts in only one field.

Silo teaching, likewise, can’t develop in students the skills of collaboration and teamwork that are crucial to career success and achievement. It’s for all those reasons that PHPS students can expect to work in teams in class, designing, tracking, refining, examining, and questioning every step of the way.

Smith’s journey

To understand just why Smith is so convinced that the public health and population science leaders of the future are going to need a very different orientation than their predecessors is really to map Smith’s own journey to Boise State. Her undergraduate degree is in English and business communication, and her early and consistent professional experiences shared aspects of community organizing.

It was while working in community outreach for a rape crisis center that she realized that what she was doing was public health.

She returned to school, completing both a master’s degree and a doctorate in public health, along the way picking up passions for program evaluation, distance education, and workforce development. She has in previous positions of academic leadership developed information technology systems to manage student practicums and worked extensively in community engagement, partnering with residents to tackle location-specific challenges.

Early signs of success

Given the times, Smith’s approach seems both common sense and greatly needed.

“How do we bring groups of people together across interest areas to work in the way we have to work going forward, in interdisciplinary teams?” she mused. “We want to prepare our students in the way that they will work.”

While Smith and the team first began the shift within the undergraduate program, the new master of public health degrees showcase this integrated approach. Developed under the leadership of Mike Mann, PHPS faculty moved away from the traditional master’s of public health degrees in disciplines such as epidemiology and biostatistics to concentrations bundled around process and methods, including prevention and intervention programming, systems analysis and innovation and health management and leadership.

Signs of success have already surfaced. Retention and student satisfaction have improved. Graduation rates similarly are on the upswing. And Smith’s rigor around degree design has meant that more attention is being paid to the programs she knows Boise State and the College of Health Sciences can excel in.

And for those students who think college might boil down to a set of theories and a lot of heavy textbooks not applied to the real world, Smith again has fresh and welcome news. Faculty members and instructors in her department are tackling some of the most interesting questions around.

• What is the effect of wildfire smoke on the people fighting the fires?
• What is Iceland doing that might resonate with Idahoans when it comes to children’s wellbeing?
• What is the truth where pesticides and farmworkers are concerned?

Solving problems

Applied data, adherence to science, changes in behavior, optimized communications and social marketing, advocacy and legislation, all need to be factored in and planned for, and PHPS students can be confident that they’ll take part in very interesting and relevant experiences that both advance the public’s well-being – and their own educations.

“How can we actually build the capacity to solve the problems that we want to solve in Idaho? We’re looking for solutions that are Idaho-based, and that’s really important to what we feel we can bring to the table,” Smith said. “When we say community-based, we mean that.

“At the end of the day, we are advancing the fundamentals of good health,” she said.

“The question is, do we have the ability to be as healthy as possible where we are?”

Going forward, Smith is interested in building out additional pathways that meet students where they are, be they incoming first-year collegians or mid-career executives. A suite of certificate programs is part of the plan, as is a doctoral program.

“We look at this as a continuum of education,” she said. “We’re growing the capacity of Idaho communities to have a strong health workforce that builds good health and well-being in Idaho.”