It's not enough to talk about the critical health issues facing Americans. Sometimes, you have to take action.
That's the message Georgeen Polyak, Ph.D., tries to convey to her students.
"Policy change is the most impactful way to improve population health," said Polyak, the director of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Benedictine University. "But it can be intimidating. I try to encourage students to become actively involved in the political process at any level. I aim to turn them into C-SPAN junkies."
Polyak also does more than try to talk her students into getting involved. She also leads by example.
While working for the Will County Health Department, she played an instrumental role in developing a federally qualified community health center in Joliet, Ill.. As the local health officer in Oak Park, Ill. she helped lead the fight to enact a clean air ordinance thatbans smoking in all indoor public places and places of employment, and within 15 feet of public and employee entrances.
"Both were challenging and depended on collaboration," Polyak said. "Students like to hear about an instructor's real-life experiences. It helps make the material and theories come alive."
Those experiences also reinforce the need for more public action on critical health issues.
"I try to convey to students that they, too, can make a substantial difference in the health status of many people through public health methods," she said.
The MPH program at Benedictine University combines the foundation disciplines of public health with a high degree of responsiveness to local needs and changing circumstances.
And it is no place for the meek.
"Students tell me they become much more involved in the learning process at Benedictine in comparison to undergraduate courses or at large universities," Polyak said. "The standards for student work are often higher at Benedictine and the classes are more personalized and practical."
The program is taught by experts in the field who have real-life experience in public health and are active in health-related professional associations.
"In our field, it is very important for teachers to be active in professional organizations," said Polyak, who in addition to her membership in several health organizations is a site reviewer for the Public Health Accreditation Board, the body that accredits local health departments.
"We educate real-world, real-time practitioners, so we need to keep up with workforce demands, trends in public health methods and current challenges, such as flu epidemics, bioterrorism and HIV/AIDS," she said.
Polyak's role, and the role of all educators, she said, is to help students see themselves as part of the solution to public health issues, not as part of the problem.
"A teacher's primary responsibility is to share a vision that is larger than the teacher and the student, and will inspire the student to see herself or himself as an important part of that vision," she said.
No ifs, ands or butts about it.