EKU Leads Push to Attract More Minorities into Environmental Health Field
EKU, home of the nation’s largest baccalaureate degree program in environmental health science, is leading a nationwide effort to attract more minorities into the rapidly growing career field.
A minority recruitment team, featuring some of the nation’s leading environmental health officials, will gather on campus Sept. 24-25 to develop a model for minority recruitment, retention and mentoring that can be replicated on college and university campuses nationwide.
The team includes African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and representatives from other underrepresented groups in the environmental health profession. Among the participants are former Assistant Surgeon General Rear Adm. Webster Young Jr., corporation executives, academic leaders and scientists from throughout the nation.
The project will be a collaborative effort between EKU’s Department of Environmental Health Science, the University’s Diversity Office and the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health. Earlier this year, EKU entered into a nationally unique partnership with the CDC. One of the benefits of that alliance is that Capt. Dan Harper, deputy chief and senior environmental health officer with the CDC, has joined the EKU faculty for the next four years.
“The immediate goal of this effort is to provide information on careers in the environmental health science field to potential students from various minority groups, and mentoring opportunities for all minority environmental health students,” said Dr. Darryl Barnett, chair of the Department of Environmental Health Science. “The long-term goal of the project is to increase the number of minority environmental health practitioners throughout the United States.”
The 15 participants in the two-day campus event are mid- to upper-level environmental health professionals who volunteered to serve as mentors in the project. They represent various federal governmental agencies, such as the CDC, FDA and EPA, as well as state and local health authorities, academia and private companies.
“It’s important to let young people know that there are highly successful minorities who’ve been there, done that,” Harper said. “They will be excellent assets in the recruitment and mentoring of minority students.”
Another goal of the project is to secure minority scholarships from private companies.
Already, EKU is seeing significant increases in minority students pursuing a degree in environmental health science, the number quadrupling in the last year alone. For all its environmental health science majors, EKU already boasts an innovative mentoring program that matches students with leading professionals nationwide and will serve as a model for the Minority Recruitment and Retention project.
“The CDC has identified some key elements in the field of environmental health science that need to be changed if it’s going to survive and prosper in the 21st century,” Harper said, “and one of those elements is diversity. Our objective is to develop models of excellence that can be used throughout the country at other universities and with other agencies.”
Because the racial diversity goals of the CDC and EKU are similar, “it became a natural marriage for us to work together to create a national model,” said Joe Beck, an associate professor in EKU’s Department of Environmental Health Science. “We see ourselves as the leader in environmental health science education in the nation, and we want to see the profession grow.”
Harper said: “It’s more than a coincidence that the CDC has chosen Eastern Kentucky University to help them revitalize the environmental health field and develop models of excellence for the entire country. They have something here that’s really incredible. It’s a hidden jewel.”
Because of recent world events, the environmental health science field is poised for tremendous growth.
“Environmental health is best defined as protecting people and populations from chemical, biological and physical threats to their health and sense of well-being,” Barnett said. “Because of our increased awareness of radiological, biological and chemical risk, the demand for professionals for the war on terrorism means new and challenging work opportunities for our graduates.”
Beck estimated that, for every environmental health science graduate, at least 1,000 positions are available, provided the graduate is flexible about location. Entry-level salaries currently range from $35,000 to $55,000.
Some students even make attractive salaries as interns, he added, and eventually gain full-time employment as a result of their internships.
While graduates of EKU’s environmental health program are employed in both the private and public sectors of environmental health, many are selected each year for commissioning by the U.S. Public Health Service. The students then are assigned environmental health responsibilities in several branches of the federal government, including the Indian Health Service, Coast Guard, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Bureau of Prisons.
Approximately 200 students are majoring in environmental health science at EKU, and an additional 50 are enrolled in the graduate program. EKU boasts the only accredited environmental health science program in Kentucky.
For more information about the program or the minority recruitment/retention project, call 622-3078.