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Public Health at Taylor: Practical, Professional Help; Spiritual Emphasis

By Angelina Burkholder Published: Dec 03, 2013

Silence settled on the crowd of students and faculty as Dr. Trina Helderman recounted her memories of Africa. Each new photo that appeared on the screen told its own story of loss and need – a child, abandoned by parents, no shelter or food, left to die; a town, destroyed by a flood, ravaged by disease; a woman, baby tied to her back with goatskin, belongings strapped to her head, fleeing as her town prepared for battle.

Those were just a few of the faces Helderman encountered doing relief work in Africa. A 2000 Taylor University graduate, Helderman serves in South Sudan with MedAir, an international humanitarian agency aiding people impacted by tribal conflicts, natural disasters and famine. She was the guest of Dr. Robert Aronson, Taylor’s new faculty member who is creating a new Public Health major on campus. It is Aronson’s belief that the Taylor program will send graduates into the world to address future generations of need. And none too soon.

“With the experience I have had so far in working within a humanitarian context in Africa and also in Haiti, what I find most disappointing is that there are a lot of Christian organizations and a lot of money coming from the church, especially in the church from the United States, to fund the activities that are needed within an emergency context,” Helderman said. “But a lot of times you don’t have professionals or people with technical skills coming with that money.”

Doing Public Health

“Part of what the field of public health does is try to understand what the current state is of the whole population or parts of the population,” Aronson said. “There is a whole science behind understanding the distribution of health problems. But then public health is also a verb, not just a noun. We do public health. We try to create the conditions in which people can be healthy.”

“We are called to reach out in love and compassion to the world that’s hurting, it’s even part of Taylor mission statement,” Aronson said. “What we want to be careful to do is to prepare ourselves and be careful to take a role that’s helpful and not harmful. Sometimes even with our best intentions and done out of love, we produce harm. We aren’t going to come in and solve problems we don’t understand for a people we know nothing about.”

A Place for Everyone

“What we need to do is realize how we can mutually learn from one another,” Aronson continued. “The kingdom is so much bigger than what we see here at Taylor and we’re going to see people from every tribe, nation and language group and even people who may have very different understanding of the gospel because of culture. We need to learn to come with humility and emphasize the need to establish relationships. Jesus didn’t just go and tell people what they’re doing wrong, he reached out and touched people and spoke with them.”

Through the Public Health program, students will be equipped to create a public health infrastructure as well as leave a spiritual impact to create sustainable, long-term change. And Aronson believes every Taylor student, regardless of major, has a stake in that goal.

“In order to improve populations that are disproportionately burdened, we have to deal with the social inequalities that produce those differences,” Aronson said. “And if we’re doing that, we have a huge role. There’s room for sociology, anthropology, political science, economists, psychologists, as well as all the biomedical sciences.”

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A variety of students are already signed up to team public health with another major. Aronson hopes to inspire more students to pursue public health regardless of their current course of study.