“The heart of public health is social justice, which means applying the lessons of the concepts,” says Assistant Professor Suzanne Gaulocher. “I’m an activist academic and it’s very important for me to apply my skills to make change for good.”
Gaulocher joined Plymouth State in 2018 after serving as director of Community Engaged Learning at Stanford University. Together with Professor Barbara McCahan, she co-designed PSU’s new public health discipline, a shift from the previous major in public health promotion. Gaulocher is also associate director of PSU’s Center for Healthy Communities.
— Assistant Professor
“The main discipline pivot was from individual health to population health,” Gaulocher says. “The health history trend in our country is that overall people were healthier in the 1970s, but the gap has widened with healthy people become healthier and unhealthy people becoming unhealthier, which has overcome any advances we’ve made as a whole. It’s because marginalized communities are being left further behind.”
Her academic and research focus on the social determinants of health involves up-to-the-minute consideration of how people with incomes below the poverty line and essential workers access healthcare. “Worldwide, we see a value put on human life, with some lives worth more than others,” Gaulocher says. “That’s just not OK with me. From a public health perspective, those in leadership roles have the responsibility to protect groups and overcome disparities.”
Plymouth State offers one of the nation’s few standalone undergraduate programs in public health. Students develop skills that enable them to implement work with nonprofits or develop government policies, and some may combine public health with nursing in order to pursue clinical opportunities.
Gaulocher recognizes that the public health field can be difficult for some undergraduates to initially grasp. “It’s a huge field, and your ultimate goal is to prevent disease. You’re trying to make something not happen.”
PSU students have conducted comprehensive research on campus and in town, including work on a Community Health Needs Assessment and a Community Health Improvement Plan. They gauged alcohol consumption by administering surveys that they crafted in collaboration with the Communities for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth (CADY). Students designed the research project together with community partners and the submitted proposal was approved by the Institutional Review Board, which evaluated the appropriateness of their research. Students met with stakeholders, gathered and synthesized data, and presented their findings back to the regional Public Health Advisory Council.
“Students completed all steps in the process,” says Gaulocher. “It’s the kind of thing that they’d be doing in professional public health placements and which would qualify them for positions, for example, with state public health departments, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
Effective communication is crucial for achieving public health goals. Gaulocher earned her master’s in public health and doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and evaluated several initiatives, including Storytelling as a System for Social Change. She wound up delivering its workshops from Maine to Hawaii. “We taught public health professionals how to tell compelling stories to policymakers in a short amount of time,” she says. “Not with pie charts but with passion, and always keeping aware of what’s important to the audience.”
Gaulocher’s expertise is a tremendous asset to Plymouth State as it plans to welcome students back to campus this fall. She is a member of University task force teams focused on communications, the greater Plymouth community, and alumni, and she serves as Plymouth State’s representative to the region’s Public Health Advisory Committee, which identifies public health priorities, strives for improved health outcomes, and advances the coordination of services. Her background allows her to professionally consider diverse viewpoints, such as from those who feel mask-wearing impinges on their civil liberties, and to fully appreciate the privileges of those who can work remotely, among other issues.
Her professional training combines with her first-person concerns as a faculty member, local resident, and PSU parent. “I know that our students, including my own child, want to be back in the classroom,” Gaulocher says. “They want to be near each other and near their teachers, but we know that physical distancing works in keeping down the virus, so I’m fully prepared to offer classes in ways that safely meet everyone’s needs.”