The Willamette University campus in Salem (Courtesy/Willamette University)

Aspiring doctors, epidemiologists, social workers and others can now major in public health at Willamette University.

Oregon’s oldest university is rolling out the program this spring, and professors spearheading it said interest is already strong.

They’ve had to increase the enrollment cap for the introductory course several times, said Sammy Basu, professor of history, humanities and American ethnic studies who co-leads the program. It now sits at 50 students, a “crazy big” number for a liberal arts college.

“They were really banging down the doors to get into the intro course and understand the program,” he said.

Basu started the public health major with Joyce Millen, associate professor of anthropology. Both were already teaching classes in their respective departments that had a public health focus, he said, and wanted to find ways to turn those scattered classes into a more cohesive program.

“Public health is a booming field. It’s a field America badly needs,” Basu said.

Public health focuses on preventing illness in communities through efforts like education and awareness, infectious disease tracking and policymaking. It draws on hard sciences like biology as well as topics like ethics, history and sociology.

Basu said Willamette a good fit for a public health program because of the college’s focus on students taking courses on a variety of topics.

“We want them to explore and wander and try out fields they haven’t heard of before,” he said.

In recent years, he said Willamette has added faculty in several departments whose expertise and research aligns with public health, including an environmental studies professor who focuses on environmental health.

He teaches a course called Death in America, looking at American morbidity and mortality rates and associated social and ethical issues, like workplace accidents and access to healthcare. It’s a politics course, but it falls under the umbrella of public health and will now be one option for students pursuing the major.

Other courses include epidemiology, public health ethics, statistics, U.S. welfare policy, nutrition, psychology and health law.

Some student interest comes from those pursuing a traditional medical career like becoming a doctor or nurse who want a better grounding in public health. But many are seeking other careers like law, social work or scientific research where an understanding of health is a bonus, Basu said.

The program has received a $6 million endowment from FamilyCare Health and the Heatherington Foundation on behalf of Jeff Heatherington, a 1965 Willamette alumnus and FamilyCare’s president and CEO.

That endowment will pay for 10 student scholarships per year for public health majors, student research projects and internships, and a director for Willamette’s pre-health programs.

Basu said the introductory course will bring in speakers from around the Salem area to showcase the variety of health-adjacent careers available. Those so far include county public health officials and workers with The ARCHES Project.

“It’s a real scattershot - we’re trying to give students a sense of the work being done,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.