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October 7, 2022

SHU receives $1.5M grant to help expand public health workforce

Photo | Courtesy Yuji Torikai Sacred Heart University professors (clockwise from top left) Bronwyn Cross-Denny, Jacqueline Vernarelli, Sofia Pendley and Christina Gunther.

Sacred Heart University has secured a federal grant to create a public health scholarship program to strengthen the emergency preparedness workforce.

SHU, based in Fairfield, received $1.5 million in a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration.

The funding enabled SHU to create a new endeavor dubbed the Pioneers of Public Health Scholarship Program. 

Jacqueline Vernarelli, director of SHU’s public health graduate program  and co-director for research and education at the College of Health Professions, will serve as project director and principal investigator for the new scholarship program. 

Assisting her will be Christina Gunther, assistant professor and chair of the health sciences department, who will serve as co-director of the project, Sofia Pendley, assistant professor of public health, and Bronwyn Cross-Denny, associate professor of health science.

According to Vernarelli, the program will provide 45 scholarships to students over a three-year period. 

There will be three scholarship options. One will provide full tuition to current health professionals who already hold a bachelor’s degree to return to earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. Another will provide tuition support for students pursuing a combined bachelor’s degree in health sciences and MPH degree. A third option will benefit undergraduate health science students with global health or public health concentrations, who are from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, Vernarelli said.

“For the first year, we are excited to offer scholarships to undergraduate health science students for PioPathway scholars,” Gunther said.

Vernarelli said the new scholarship program will serve a dual purpose.

“It addresses two big goals: increasing the number of public health workers with specialized training in emergency preparedness and response, and it also confronts public health inequities, specifically related to access to higher education,” she said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing to light the challenges the public health systems faces, Pendley said the grant will help train the next generation of public health workers by engaging them early in their training.

“This grant will not only bolster our ability to respond to future pandemics but will make an MPH and undergraduate health science degree with a focus in public health attainable for students who may not have previously had the opportunity,” Pendley said.

Cross-Denny, a licensed clinical social worker, said the health community is seeing the effects the pandemic had with regard to mental health issues, and added “the opportunity to train more public health professionals to address population needs at the onset can prevent further health and mental health problems, especially in times of crisis.”

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