College of Liberal Arts

Health and Society Majors Attack World’s Most Pressing Problems From All Sides

Mon, Apr 2, 2018
Image By Eric Moe
Image By Eric Moe

The University of Texas at Austin’s health and society major began as a tiny program asking big questions about healthcare, which the World Economic Forum calls one of the most pressing problems facing the globe. But what started with only fourteen students in 2014, has skyrocketed to more than 500 students rising to the challenge of solving some of the world’s toughest and most urgent problems.

Alex Weinreb, the director of the university’s Health and Society Program, said the major’s rapid growth is organic. Today’s students are attracted to what they see as not only an intriguing topic of study, but a booming industry with ample opportunities.

The major is designed for those who are interested in health issues, but not necessarily wed to one discipline. Students take liberal arts courses in ethics, psychology, business, as well as hard science classes like biology and chemistry to gain broad exposure healthcare issues.

“It’s a much more holistic way of looking at health,” said Weinreb, who is also an associate professor of sociology at UT Austin. “To understand health properly, you need to deal seriously both with the biomedical side and the sociological and cultural side. The way we build our healthcare system is influenced by all sorts of political traditions and economic constraints. There are many factors to consider beyond just a patient’s physical symptoms.”

Health and society classes are rooted in an interdisciplinary outlook that encourages students to make inroads on innovative solutions to complex problems. The major grants students the freedom to tailor their degree plan to their existing interests or dive into new ones they find along the way. Stephanie Osbakken, a UT Austin sociologist and the lead lecturer for health and society, credits the major’s popularity to this flexible and interdisciplinary approach.  

“I think that’s what the magic of this major is,” Osbakken said. “Interdisciplinarity offers a vehicle for creating solutions for the world around us, and I think this generation is well-suited for those majors. They’re really seekers, problem-solvers, so creative in so many ways.”

The diverse curriculum of the major creates a vibrant student body, made up of different interests and backgrounds. Students plan to pursue careers in health administration, nutrition, refugee health services, pharmaceutical sales and more. Some students, such as senior Kevin Chow, plan to become doctors themselves. Chow started college as a biology major, but craved a more multifaceted understanding of his field.

“As an aspiring physician, I wanted to expand my horizons beyond the hard sciences of medicine,” Chow said. “The Health and Society program has helped me understand the state of medicine in our society, past to present, and has given meaning to my choice to pursue a career in the health professions.”

Still in its early years, the major is constantly evolving. Faculty members are exploring the possibility to expand internship opportunities for students, and professors are encouraged to be creative and design new cross-discipline courses. For example, Osbakken created a class called Cancerland that brings in her experiences as a cancer survivor to explore the unique cultural and social factors that arise when living with the disease. With classes like these, the program aims to foster a more nuanced understanding of health that will help its students drive future solutions.

“The biggest problems facing us now in the 21st century are health-related,” Osbakken said. “If students have a breadth of experience that they can draw on to propel them in the right direction, they’ll feel empowered to take them on.”

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