Carissa Russell

Carissa Russell is earning an undergraduate degree in public health at the University of Montana.

MISSOULA – Carissa Russell wants to work with communities to improve the health of minority populations. 

            This realization hit her while working toward an undergraduate degree in public health at the University of Montana. An incoming senior from Portland, Oregon, Russell paired her major with a minor in Spanish. This academic mix helped her land an internship with UM’s Rural Institute, where she worked as a research assistant and translator for three different research projects.

            “Those projects really opened my eyes to what it means to be part of the public health community – serving not just the majority but also those who need more support,” Russell said. “I also was able to take a lot of classes so I could become more culturally competent. Honestly, I got a whole new view of the world.”

            She is earning a Bachelor of Science in Public Health, a relatively new undergraduate offering at UM that recently earned national accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health. The program launched in 2020.

            “The COVID-19 pandemic taught us the importance of public health,” said Tony Ward, a professor and chair of UM’s School of Public and Community Health Sciences. “As a result, we are seeing a significant increase in the number of public health and health care job opportunities – not only locally but regionally and globally.

“In addition to COVID-19, there are other emerging threats to our population, including climate change, homelessness related to rising housing costs and the mental health crisis,” he said. “So there has never been a more important time to be a public health professional.”

A public health degree prepares graduates to work in a variety of settings, including public health departments, hospitals and clinics, nonprofits, worksite wellness programs, human resource offices and community-based health agencies.

Ward said UM’s undergraduate degree in public health is growing as more students learn about the program. About 30 students are enrolled.

            “The program fills a unique niche in our area,” Ward said. “We are the only CEPH-accredited undergraduate program in Montana and one of only a handful in our region.”

            He said the program’s new accreditation will extend until 2024, when the entire school will reapply for renewal. The school’s Master of Public Health and Ph.D. in Public Health already have achieved accreditation. 

            Russell said accreditation matters to her.

            “It shows the University has put forward the solid academics we need for our major,” she said. “I was very excited to hear the news.”

            Russell first came to UM to major in exercise science. Soon she realized she wanted a career with a little less science and more community work. An adviser suggested she try a class from Dr. Annie Sondag in the School of Public and Community Health Sciences. It “flipped a switch” for her, and she switched majors.

            “I think UM really pushes for us to get out and get some real-life experience in the community,” Russell said. “We are really able to work with community through programs like (the Flagship Community-School Program) and the Missoula City-County Health Department.”

            She said the program has done great things for her, and she’s excited to get out and use her degree after she graduates next May. Where will she be in five years?

            “I want to have my master’s degree by then and working out in the community,” she said. “I want to be working toward making health care more available and equitable for everyone.”