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UW launches new global health major

Screenshot of the global health major shown on the UW–Madison website.

2020 has been a time of expanded visibility of—and appreciation for—global public health efforts, a year when people have been paying attention to the complex and varied impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. and beyond. It is in this context that UW­­–Madison is launching a new global health major, an alternative to the existing global health certificate for those students who want more depth in this topic area.

“The value of any global health training lies in the way it forces us to think about the day-to-day experiences of other people and to face the extreme inequities that still exist in disease incidence and other threats to good health, regardless of whether it’s looking at communities across the ocean or in our own backyard,” says entomology professor Susan Paskewitz, who helped develop the new major. “There’s an emphasis on empathy, on cultural awareness and humility, and on collaborative efforts to improve health at the population level.”

The new global health major is both a bioscience and public health major. Students in the major study human health and well-being through population-level and world health perspectives, exploring how human health intersects with multiple interconnected systems, such as climate change, food systems, disease ecology, environmental health, economic development, and healthcare access.

“It’s a really broad field, so the major is designed to help students find their passion area within [the field] and go deeper into the area they care about most,” says Todd Courtenay, lead advisor for the major.

The major, housed in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, will help prepare students for a wide variety of careers. Students can go on to become healthcare professionals who are well-informed about the broader systems that impact the health of their patients. They can become epidemiologists or research scientists in academia or with government agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Majors can also take on roles as community health professionals working on policy, education or communication for governmental agencies or non-governmental organizations, locally, nationally, or internationally.

In this July 2020 photo, UW–Madison junior global health major Zari Dehdashti is shown inspecting a drag cloth for ticks as part of the “Tick Team” at the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector Borne Disease, studying tick populations in Wisconsin and the transmission of Lyme disease. Photo courtesy Zari Dehdashti.

“Science is something I’ve always known my career would center around, but I didn’t quite know how to combine it with my love for travel and languages” says Zari Dehdashti, a junior global health major. “Global health opens so many doors in realms that include these interests.”

UW–Madison students have already shown a strong interest in global health. The global health certificate, which has been available for more than a decade, is among the most popular on campus, with around 300 students earning one each year.

“The interest in developing a major started with the success [of the certificate], and with the realization that there are many students who wanted deeper engagement,” says Paskewitz. “Much of the training in global health doesn’t happen until postgraduate programs. We think that’s too late for undergraduates interested in this field.”

A new advising hub—staffed by Courtenay, along with seasoned Global Health certificate advisors Katie Freeman and Devika Suri—has been established to support students pursuing the new major and the certificate. And the curriculum has been designed to make it easy for students to switch between the major and the certificate, and vice versa.

The certificate is a 15-credit program that is easily accessible to all UW–Madison majors, as the required courses have no pre-requisites. The major requires 62 credits worth of fundamental courses, core courses, depth courses, and a capstone. As an official bioscience major, a series of foundational science courses is part of the package.

One hallmark of the overall program is the “global health field experience,” which can take place internationally or domestically, including some opportunities as nearby as the Madison area. It’s a requirement for the certificate, and majors are strongly encouraged to participate.

“The field experience is really an opportunity for students to get a more hands-on experience where they’re taking their classroom knowledge and seeing how it plays out in the real world,” explains Courtenay. “It’s about getting more of a personal connection [to what they are learning].”

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in global health, Dehdashti plans to join a global health effort for a few years, return to school for a Ph.D. in epidemiology, and then seek an epidemiology position with a multinational organization.

“Something central to being a ‘global citizen’ is being willing to go out there and roll up your sleeves,” says Dehdashti, “and that’s exactly what I intend to do!”

The global health major became available in fall 2020. For more information or to talk to an advisor, visit