White Women and People of Color Report Having Negative Experiences During Their Time at a PWI School of Public Health

To improve the experiences of students and alumni from marginalized communities, development and alumni relations professionals should assess alumni’s perceived barriers as both students and alumni.

As we explore ways to achieve health equity, the educational and networking experiences of public health researchers and practitioners becomes more important. Often the people most invested in this area embody marginalized identities themselves, as they work to contribute to the communities that invested into them. Data from our new report in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice showed that those who identified as white women and people of color or indigenous were more likely to have negative experiences during their time as students. This has negative implications for student mentoring opportunities, networking opportunities, school reputation and rankings, donor cultivation, and recruitment efforts. Public health professionals should be fully energized and engaged with incoming professionals, educational institutions, and new research.

The School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota (SPH) is a public institution granting masters and doctorate degrees in over 40 different programs, and we will soon begin a brand new undergraduate program. Since 1944 the School has educated and supported much of the public health workforce in Minnesota. Of course, like many institutions, the School has not always been as welcoming to those from oppressed communities as we should be. Broadly speaking, Minneapolis and Minnesota have become infamous for state sponsored killing of mostly Black men and for the vast racial inequities between White and Black populations. In what UMN Professor Dr. Samuel Myers, Jr. refers to as the Minnesota Paradox, Minnesota is one of the best states for Whites when it comes to education, housing, employment, health, and income, but often the worst for Blacks in the same categories. In 2020, this all came to a head in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Minneapolis streets flooded with people demanding justice and accountability. Public health and higher education have important roles to play in closing these gaps.

As part of a recent study of all living UMN School of Public Health alumni (with almost 2,000 respondents), we asked questions specifically around perceptions of engagement and support, from respondents’ experiences as both students and alumni. SPH recently committed to implementing antiracism in all of our operations. But navigating that also means being truthful and transparent about our previous structures and policies. This data gives us better insight about how to engage all students and alumni, especially those who have historically been underrepresented, excluded, and ignored.

What we found:

  • 78% of BIPOC respondents compared with 39% of White alumni, reported that they did not feel like their program helped them connect with role models and resources that benefitted them as underrepresented students
  • 64% reported that they did not feel that their program or SPH encouraged or supported diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, compared with 25% of White alumni
  • 53% of BIPOC women and 47% of all women reported that when they were students, they did not feel that SPH made decisions that reflected a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion
  • 32% of BIPOC women reported that they felt like they did not belong when they attended the SPH
  • 33% of BIPOC women reported that they personally experienced bias and/or discrimination in their program or SPH compared with only 13% of White women

As SPH continues to address its role in the protection and promotion of public health in our state and nation, acknowledgement of racism and other forms of oppression is foundational to moving forward. Transparent recognition and sharing of data like those presented in this manuscript help us to begin the repair and reconciliation process. And while the work of antiracism and anti-oppression are difficult and have no stopping point, they are critical to the success of public health.

Read Our Article in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:

Skky Martin is a researcher at the Center for Public Health Systems. Her research interests include health disparities, health equity, and the interrelationship between public health and medical education. She is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University of Chicago in sociology. Her dissertation specializes in maternal health and health education.

Lauren L. Jones is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Lauren provides leadership and oversight for DEI activities across the school, including strategic planning and implementation, training, and programming. She is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. Lauren is a native Chicagoan and currently lives in Minneapolis.

JP Leider, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Public Health Systems at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and a member of the JPHMP Editorial Board. He is available at leider (at) umn (dot) edu.