11/16 Badger Talks Live: UniverCity Alliance’s partnership with School of Medicine and Public Health

Maria Morgen never doubted how her classroom experience in Public Health 780 would connect with the real world. 

The class, taught by Deputy Director of the Master of Public Health Program Barbara Duerst, connects students with communities working to improve local health outcomes through the UniverCity Alliance’s UniverCity Year program. 

“We’re working directly with the community on a public health topic,” said Morgen, now in her second year of the School of Medicine and Public Health’s master program. “It was just exciting to have that experience your first semester.”  

She said working directly with officials in Adams County created the feeling of “living the things we’re learning.”

Since 2016, Duerst and her students have worked with over 20 organizations, groups, coalitions and communities throughout Wisconsin. Duerst said she wants students to experience the reality of working with communities and value the importance of local voices when they take her course, which is designated as a Community-Based Learning class through the Morgridge Center for Public Service — a partner of UniverCity Alliance. 

“It’s been a really solid partnership,” Duerst said. “I feel really very grateful for working with (UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter) and the staff and connecting me with these great communities that have a lot of projects.” 

While students are learning, local governments are gaining momentum on community projects. 

“We hope to benefit from this partnership by improving the outcomes for individuals and families in our community,” said Kelly Oleson, director of the Adams County Health & Human Services Department. “The work that has already been completed by the students will give us a ‘leg up’ as we look for funding opportunities to move forward projects that will have the greatest impact on the community.”

Green and Adams counties are two communities that partnered with UniverCity Alliance on issues related to improving community health. As a result of the partnership, the counties are seeing tangible results.  

Duerst and Morgen will discuss these results during a Badger Talks LIVE live event Tuesday, Nov. 16 at noon. The discussion will be recorded and available for viewing after the event on Facebook and on YouTube

In Green County, officials received a $60,000 grant to develop a dashboard compiling data on opioid use throughout the county after a group of three students developed a proposal analyzing data sharing. The goal with presenting the data publicly is to raise awareness about the extent of opioid use in the community, and the problems dependency on these drugs create.  

“By making this data available to the relevant agencies we provide the backbone needed to implement services and make data-informed decisions,” according to the county.  

Another proposal included a plan for creating a mental health navigator program, which is now being implemented, in Green County to improve connections to mental health resources.

In Adams County, a group of students that included Morgen, studied how the county could improve health messaging to residents who may struggle to get connected to the internet.

Morgen and two other students outlined three connected interventions — health messaging frameworks, internet and non-internet-based methods, surveys — that could overall support the effectiveness of reaching residents, particularly those living in rural areas. 

Oleson highlighted another student effort looking into a new system of childcare in Adams County. After the initial report was completed, a small group of individuals in Adams County has continued working on the issue.

“Although the project is still in the infancy stage, there is growing excitement and interest in what can be built to address a major need in our community that impacts our economy,” Oleson said.  

Oleson also said witnessing the talents of UW-Madison students has been an “unexpected impact” of the county’s partnership with UniverCity Alliance and that “every project and each student has surpassed our expectations.”

Even if projects in her class are not implemented in communities, Duerst said they provide value as “food for thought” and as a tool to build consensus. She said her class is “nimble” and can change to meet the needs of the community. 

“What you learn in the textbook sometimes doesn’t play out the same in the communities,” Duerst said.  

Morgen said combining community experiences with her coursework, the goal of community based learning, added value to her education. 

“(Community-based learning) really helps anchor the priority of public health and makes sure that we’re meeting specific needs of communities and leveraging evidence to help support our recommendations and intervention strategies,” Morgen said.