Addressing Population Health Through Higher Education:


Q/A with Chelsea Wesner, MPH, MSW, Instructor, Master of Public Health Program, School of Health Sciences - University of South Dakota

1.     What is your role with addressing population health through higher education?

I’m a faculty member in the joint University of South Dakota-South Dakota State University Master of Public Health program, in which my role as an instructor includes the tripartite mission: teaching, research, and service. My role in addressing population health through graduate education is designing learning experiences, in which students become public health practitioners in local community. To do this, we engage directly with community initiatives and organizations through service learning and community-based projects.

Much of my current work is informed and inspired by my experience as a public health practitioner, researcher, and student. For more than a decade, I’ve been fortunate to work in collaboration with diverse communities, tribes, and organizations on a number of public health issues, including maternal and child health, diabetes prevention, behavioral health, and healthy food security.

2.     How are you preparing future public health practitioners to adequately support the public health field?

I believe the best way to prepare our students is to get them to care about public health. When you care about an issue, the learning process comes naturally. I’m fortunate to work with students from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and histories, many of whom are working or have prior experience in public health or health care. One of the best parts of my job is working with and learning from these students as we use a public health lens to: 1) understand the root causes of poor health, 2) analyze health policies, 3) identify evidence-based solutions to address health issues, and 4) design multi-level interventions.

3.     What are gaps with integrating higher education in multi-sector collaborations to improve population health?

Multi-sector collaborations provide a wonderful way to combine and leverage the strengths of various agencies, schools, clinics, nonprofits, and universities. While I can’t think of any gaps, there are additional steps to consider. For example, collaborations with other agencies might require agreements or affiliation agreements if students are involved. Collaboration with universities in which a project involves implementing a public health intervention or any type of research requires approval from an Institutional Review Board. And when working in partnership with tribal communities, we honor and follow any additional tribal review and/or cultural protocols. I don’t see any of these steps as gaps, but they might require advance planning. 

4.     How can the public health field better engage higher education (e.g. including students, programs, etc.) to address population health?

We welcome ideas from and collaborations with agencies, tribal communities, community-based organizations, schools, clinics, and more. Our graduate students are eager to contribute and have the knowledge and skills to identify solutions to public health issues. Many nonprofits, organizations, and schools have resources to respond to issues, but few have the means to prevent the issues from happening in the first place. Our students are trained to prevent and promote health through creating a supportive and healthy environment. Let us know how we can help! You can reach me at: or 605-658-6335.

5.     How has (has it had to) public health training changed in the past 10 years?

I believe the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, and its final report in 2008, spurred the most transformational change in the last decade. Thanks to the work of the commission and many other scholars and advocates around the world, we now have a greater focus on understanding and addressing the root causes of poor health as well as advancing health equity. I’ve also seen a shift from focusing on prevention across the lifespan to the importance of investing in and focusing on early life intervention.

6.     As a new MPH program, what needs do you have from other sectors to prepare future public health professionals?

We welcome public health professionals to serve as preceptors and research advisors for our MPH students. Our students complete practicum and capstone projects during which they can work in a number of settings, such as public health agencies, departments, schools, nonprofits, and clinics.

7.     How is the MPH program connecting with public health professionals and stakeholders local, state, regionally, and nationally.

Our MPH faculty, staff, and students across the USD and SDSU campuses are engaging with: 1) local communities through service learning, practicums, capstone projects, and community initiatives; 2) the South Dakota Public Health Association, South Dakota Department of Health, and various state-level initiatives; and 3) the American Public Health Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and participating in a number of national and regional conferences.