Empowering Students to Recognize and Reduce Health Inequities: A Q&A with The Dartmouth Institute’s New Social Justice Curriculum Advisor
When students first step into The Dartmouth Institute’s MPH and MS programs, they begin an important journey that will help equip them to dissect and address social inequalities facing public health and healthcare. Leading this endeavor is Dartmouth Institute Assistant Professor Alka Dev, DrPH, MHS, in her new role as social justice curriculum advisor for the Institute’s educational programs.
Dev, who has devoted 20 years to public health research, started this position at the Institute in July 2020. She is focused on introducing a social justice thread throughout the curricula while looking for synergies across courses for how the Institute’s programs discuss and present disparities. Below she shares her thoughts on the pathway she wants to create for students to work toward achieving equity in public health.
Q: What are some of your goals for incorporating social justice principles throughout the Institute’s educational programs?
Social justice really starts with looking at what we already know to be glaring inequities in our healthcare system and thinking about working to narrow those gaps. The charge for the next generation that we are training should be to continue reducing these inequities rather than simply studying them.
To that end, I want to develop a shared set of objectives that acknowledge and promote social justice principles. This will include elevating the urgency and importance of equity principles in response to current events. Today, our top priority is to keep all the negative impacts of systemic racism on the forefront of what we do. We have a real responsibility to get this right because our students look to us as experts and authority figures in public health practice.
I also teach a determinants of health inequities course and I have been impressed with how students passionately grabbed on to the material. Another goal of mine is to provide more extracurricular opportunities for students to engage with social justice content. I am planning to host guest panels with a diverse array of public health experts, as well as with people who are doing an incredible job of integrating public health/equity thinking into their work in other sectors. I want students to feel that social justice conversations do not have to end with just one class or lecture on this topic. At Dartmouth, we are committed to improving health and healthcare for all people, and we are eager to engage with students on these issues.
Q: Your career spans over 20 years in public health research and education. What got you interested in public health and improving health equity?
In my undergraduate studies, I took a course on women’s health. We covered how gender plays into different aspects of our lives, and I was blown away by the idea that your identity can impact your health because I had always thought of health as sort of a biological phenomenon. So, this idea that your health outcomes can be impacted by not only what is happening in your body, but also by the way people see you, and the way you are treated by the system, was mind boggling. That was my ‘aha’ moment where I knew I wanted to make a difference in public health. At Dartmouth, I want students to keep faith that they will get their own ‘aha’ moments during their education.
Q: How do you want to inspire students to use a health equity mindset to drive public health policy and public health practice? The topic of equity is rather complex. I would love for students to feel empowered to look at an overwhelmingly inequitable situation and break it down and understand where and how it went wrong. Ultimately, we want to offer solutions; we are not going to do that if we do not know how to break down a problem and understand why things are not working.
I also hope that students will feel encouraged to seek out opportunities to do more health-equity-focused work in their careers. I want to instill in them the confidence that they can take their Dartmouth training forward to identify and address inequities in the real world.