Monday, May 27, 2024

College of Health sees inaugural graduating class – The Brown and White

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The first students to ever attend Lehigh’s College of Health joined Lehigh’s community on Aug. 21, 2020, through Zoom.

This year, this inaugural cohort of the College of Health will walk the graduation stage as a full class for the first time to receive their diplomas.

College of Health students, like Lanie Fenster, ‘24, Esha Soni, ‘24, and Jake Vettoretti, ‘24, have all had to navigate the complexities of public health in real-time over the past four years, beginning with their introduction to Lehigh during the COVID pandemic.

“We started in the midst of the pandemic, and that obviously highlighted the need for people in the field,” Fenster said. “It really affirmed that public health is something that I want to be involved in. I want to be in a position where I can impact lives on a global scale.”

Vettoretti agreed the pandemic gave College of Health students a distinctive learning opportunity. He said courses exploring COVID became an integral to the first-year curriculum, which further inspired his career aspirations.

Vettoretti said although homework assignments focused on COVID were tiring, they also benefited his learning.

“It gave me a lot of opportunities to learn about a pandemic in real-time and it allowed me to learn that I wasn’t interested as much in the medicine, but rather, how do we prevent something like this from happening?” Vettoretti said.

Last year, the college saw nine students graduate in the Class of 2023. This year’s graduating class, comprising 56 undergraduate students alongside graduate students in master’s programs, represents a pivotal moment for the College of Health, led by Elizabeth Dolan, Dean of the College of Health.

“I want to give a big shout-out to Dean Dolan just because she came in a little delayed after us being an interim dean, and she wanted to get to know all of the students,” Soni said. “I’m very confident that if someone were to ask her about me, she would know about my background and my interests.”

Dolan, who started as interim dean in December 2020, said the college has grown exponentially since its first year.

“Our first class is incredibly special to me because they were instrumental in helping us grow the college,” Dolan said. “From beginning with six faculty members, we have now expanded to 26 faculty with plans for further growth and development.”

What began as a single major in population health has now grown into a diverse offering of health-related majors and minors community and global health; biostatistics and health data science; and health medicine and society with further plans to expand collaborations with the College of Business.

Being the inaugural students of a new college, however, came with its own challenges. The class of 2024 had to grapple with what it truly means to be a pioneer.

“I think the hardest part sometimes of being a guinea pig is I don’t have those upperclassmen or an alumni group to look up after to get resources on,” Soni said. “I know once we graduate, we will be those people, but I feel like a little too much I have been that person who gives the advice.”

While students initially faced organizational challenges and a lack of clarity in degree requirements, the college has started to address these issues and work toward a smoother academic experience through increased communication and new feedback channels like the Student Advisory Council.

Soni, a founding co-president of the Student Advisory Council, highlighted the council’s role in providing valuable feedback to address issues within the College.

“In the beginning of COVID, the first two years, I never really met my professors in person,” Soni said. “(The Council) wanted to do events where students could actually meet their professors for the first time and then (have) admissions events for students to go to admitted students events and talk.”

The importance of student feedback and targeted growth was echoed by Dolan, who has learned a lot about student concerns through the council, as well as informal group dinners.

“The Student Advisory Council was really great because they told me things that weren’t working well,” Dolan said. “Their input helped us refine various aspects of the College, from academic advising to promoting student wellness.”

Despite initial challenges, students like Fenster, Soni and Vettoretti expressed profound gratitude for the opportunities afforded by the College of Health, including internships and research opportunities.

Dolan described the college as a “startup” within a parent institution, as faculty, staff and students have come together to build a truly impactful program.

“A strong majority (of students) point to a relationship with a professor in the College of Health,” Dolan said. “Because we’re smaller, those are really strong relationships.”

Fenster echoed this sentiment, describing the college as a “tight-knit” community due to shared coursework and passions among students. Soni emphasized how starting small and building stronger connections allowed her to further shape the college’s development.

This strong community and mentorship within the College of Health is something Dolan aims to preserve and cultivate moving forward.

Now, the soon-to-be graduates hope to continue seeing more changes enacted, including finishing the top floor of the Health, Science and Technology building and developing more organizational infrastructure to support various career tracks.

Soni, in particular, hopes to see more niche collaborations between other programs at Lehigh. As a student who studied both journalism and health at Lehigh, she is hoping the connection between media and health, and other similar connections, will continue to be acknowledged.

“It’s super surreal,” Soni said. “I’ve seen the college grow the past four years … There definitely were some hurdles along the way being a guinea pig, but I think it only made me and my class stronger and more equipped for post grad.”

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