Bachelor of Science in Community Health Education
Chief Executive Officer – SOPHE
In 1976, Elaine Auld earned a bachelor’s degree in community health education from Kent State University and two years later, she earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan. Since then, she has used the diverse skill set given to her by her studies to help patients at a Cincinnati hospital, as well as plan health initiatives that reached people across the country. Now, she is the CEO of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), an international organization that promotes healthy behaviors, communities, and environments through its membership, network of local chapters, and numerous partnerships with other organizations.
Why did you choose to major in health education?
I was one those folks sort of searching for what was the right career path. I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse or a teacher and at the time in the 1970s, most women were slated into those fields. Then I found this opportunity, and I liked health and education, but I didn’t want to be in a classroom setting. It’s a really exciting career, and you get to help people and give them a better quality of life. If there’s a family context for it, my brother was a physical therapist and my sister was a nurse, so there was a great interest in health in my family.
What did you like about the experience? What could have been better?
I liked the core courses. One of the things our discipline stresses that may be different from others is that we get the core skills while in school, so we’ll learn how to plan and implement something. If you don’t know how to assess individuals and communities, and plan interventions and use intervention-based programs, you may not be successful. I had chemistry, biology, and physiology, but what made this degree interesting was that I was able to transfer for those skills to many different areas. It’s one of those degrees where you’re learning a variety of skills that can be used in many different settings.
The internship was something else I liked. Students from accredited program these days are required to have very comprehensive internships. It gives you the experience of going to see a setting that you may be working in so you can see if this career is really for you or not. I think the internship is really important and valuable, and it really cemented for me that this is the profession I want to be in.
What did you dislike about it?
I can’t point to anything, per se, that I disliked. I remember the first six months after I got out of school, I started looking for a job, and — in the late 1970s, there was the idea that you couldn’t work in patient education unless you were a nurse. At the time, I was really fighting for the opportunity to break through and prove that I could do it. I think the hardest part was being prepared to sell yourself and getting a job, especially when you’re breaking through in a new area. The other part was that you are so dedicated and pushed, and you’re learning so much, and you’ve got all these tests and deadlines, but then you get into the work environment and you get this lag [because] some of the people you work with are just learning the materials you studied years ago. There’s sort of a disconnect when you get into the real world, and I wasn’t so prepared to deal with that.
How has it impacted your career?
I probably wouldn’t have this job right now. I wouldn’t have had the interactions with the people who are attracted to this business by nature. I’ve met people from all over the world who work in health education as well, and we speak a common language. That’s been a very rewarding experience. If I would have gotten a biology degree, I don’t think I would have gotten any of my other jobs either.
What skills from your degree do you still use?
All of them, basically, [including] assessment, planning, implementation, evaluation, being a resource person, communicating and advocating for populations. I use all of those, and now that we run national and international programs, we have two conferences a year where we bring in people and teach them how to be advocates. I use all of those basic skills, even though I’m not planning for the community, per se.
A lot of health education today is focused around helping communities develop programs. For example, if we’re telling you to be more physically active to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol, we wouldn’t say you just need more exercise. What we would do is work with communities ósometimes with urban planners or public health officials — to change zoning to allow a park to be built or to allow a safe route so kids can walk to school. Some people think we work one-on-one with people and tell them not to smoke or to eat better, but we really approach it from a community standpoint.
What advice would you give prospective students?
First of all, according to the Department of Labor, they expect the demand for people with our degree and competencies to grow about 18% over the next 10 years because of the focus on health prevention. It’s an exciting career and itís a growing field, and I think there are opportunities they can find, no matter the setting. Whether itís a school, health program, or universities, there are many places that health educators are in demand.
You have to educate people about what you can do because it’s not always obvious. Our biggest challenge is educating people, whether its educating an employer about the skills you have or your family or friends about what you can do and how you can make this place a healthier place to live. Don’t undersell yourself is the advice I would give. Also, involve yourself in a professional organization because so much of your continuous learning throughout your career will come through your volunteering work. The learning doesn’t come just through the books. And you can make so many professional contacts that way, and building those networks is invaluable to advancing your career.