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When students ask Assistant Professor Dr. Janelle Jacobson why they should study community health, she tells them the same thing that swayed her years ago.

“When I started attending college, I thought I wanted to be an MD. I realized that, as a medical doctor, you can impact one person’s life at a time. But if you go into public health and do it well, you can impact a lot of people’s lives at once,” she said.

Community health students at SUNY Potsdam come away with the skills they need to shape and implement health and wellness policies and programs—allowing them to help transform lives and communities.

“You can very rarely affect change sitting in an office. We teach students to adapt evidence-based solutions to help people on a large scale,” Jacobson said.

She has conducted extensive research on and completed a number of initiatives related to tobacco control, first beginning while she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa and now as a faculty member at SUNY Potsdam. By changing policies and reducing the rates of tobacco use, studies have shown significant declines in cancers and health complications related to tobacco use.

“If our students do not start using tobacco products during their four years here, statistically speaking, they will almost certainly never regularly use tobacco later in life. We are a teaching institution, so this fits with our educational mission—plus, we want to make sure students stay emotionally and physically healthy,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson received a grant from the American Cancer Society and the CVS Health Foundation to add the College to the Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative. She is partnering with the Seaway Valley Prevention Council and working with a campus task force on the project.

“For those who do use tobacco, we want to make it easier for people to make another quit attempt, and provide educational resources for them. In addition, by reducing secondhand smoke, we help the members of our community who are immunocompromised, asthmatic or have allergies to secondhand smoke,” she said.

As a faculty member in SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Public Health and Human Performance, Jacobson teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in community health. She also coordinates the College’s Master of Science degree program in community health.

From classwork to internships to professional projects, Jacobson believes that the best foundation community health majors can receive is in tackling real-world problems. In her health policy class, that could mean asking students to delve into the very big differences between the universal healthcare coverage offered in Canada and the United Kingdom, and the healthcare system here at home in the U.S. As the debate rages over possible changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Jacobson finds herself changing her lecture slides constantly, as she touched on each new proposal and looked for examples to understand what the impacts of each legislative package might be.

She often finds that in her classes students may bring preconceived notions about the benefits or downsides to various policies. Jacobson said that she uses this as an opportunity to urge students to dive deep and find out what the evidence shows.

“When it comes to healthcare, people tend to fall back on easy talking points,” Jacobson said. “If a problem doesn’t make sense, I tell people to take away your feelings about what the right thing to do is, and really look at who benefits and who loses out if this goes one way or another. I like to play devil’s advocate and challenge students. I don’t want them to think how I think. I want them to challenge authority and find their own solutions. If I’m wrong, fantastic. Let me learn from you. If we disagree, it’s not a big deal. I want to hear you make an argument from a strategic point of view.”

Jacobson is also very interested in basing her research, collaboration and teaching efforts in a specific community—in this case, the North Country. For instance, she has previously worked with the St. Lawrence County Health Initiative to look at public health data around health outcomes in St. Lawrence County and provide input to help strategically prioritize and plan for the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP). .

“In public health, you are often looking to get the ‘biggest bang for your buck’ with a policy or program. So a lot of times you may focus on urban centers with large populations. But a lot of people live in rural areas, and they have different needs and challenges. So, I care a lot about focusing on rural health, especially given our location,” she said.

After being invited to speak in a roundtable about the American healthcare system for the Potsdam Public Library last year, Jacobson started talking to some of the participants about other ways that they could help inform local folks about those issues. She ended up recording a series of “deep dive discussion” podcasts for the library, answering questions that were crowdsourced on social media, explaining basics like how deductibles work and giving an easy-to-understand overview of the American healthcare system.

“It’s important to educate people, because if you don’t know, you won’t care—and this impacts us all. If you are pushing air, you should be concerned about your health insurance and about healthcare in general,” Jacobson said.

She is particularly proud that in the graduate program, students take away tangible skills like grant writing and strategic planning. The master’s program culminates with an internship and professional project, which requires students to work with an outside community organization. One of her students, John Bresett, completed his professional project with Franklin County Public Health and conducted a series of interviews with community leaders in Franklin County to determine the level of support for a syringe exchange program and where it should be located to be most effective. A syringe exchange program allows injecting illicit drug users to exchange used syringes for clean ones which reduces the transmission of infectious diseases like Hepatitis C or HIV and makes it easier to dispose of syringes in a safe manner. The results of these interviews will inform the next steps in the syringe exchange program development and implementation.

“The ultimate goal is to provide mutual benefit to our students and to the organization. We want to make sure our students are crossing off an item on the interning agency’s ‘wish list,’ so they will keep partnering with us, and hopefully hire some of our graduates too,” Jacobson said.

To learn more about the Department of Public Health and Human Performance at SUNY Potsdam, visit

Article by Alexandra Jacobs Wilke