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Public health in practice
Rita Landgraf (far left) teaches a new course – “Public Health in Practice,” where undergraduate students learn from high-level speakers, including American Public Health Association President Joseph Telfair (center).

Public health in practice

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Rita Landgraf teaches about the fight for health equity in her new “Public Health in Practice” course

Rita Landgraf has spent her career fighting for health equity at the community, state and national levels. This semester, she brings those experiences to a second-floor classroom at the University of Delaware in McDowell Hall where she teaches “Public Health in Practice,” a course that examines how factors like violence, food insecurity and poverty lead to health inequities.

Her biology, neuroscience and health behavior science majors have the usual coursework – as well as the unique benefit of hearing firsthand about the impact of health disparities from Landgraf, who served eight years as Delaware’s Secretary of Health and Social Services.

Still, it’s Landgraf who prefers to listen to what her students have to say about the social determinants of health, the impact of trauma and the need for community engagement to reduce these health inequities.

“What I want them to get out of it is critical thinking,” said Landgraf, the College of Health Sciences professor of practice and distinguished health and social services administrator in residence. “This is not a class about opinion. There are scholars who have really dug deep into this study. That’s what I want my students to do. I want this to resonate with you as a human.”

On a recent Friday morning, she and her students discussed an Australian study about individual, social and environmental influences on walking. They talked about the downstream effects of neighborhood violence, the impact of having access to recreational activities and the role of technology in achieving and sustaining physical activity goals.

“What are ways to promote physical activities when there is no opportunity within a physical location?” Landgraf asked. 

“Sufficient transportation,” said Meghan Paulus, a health behavior science major. “I’ve seen students willing to risk a ticket for riding on the sidewalks because of the cars.”

Community recreation space, added Audrey Mazelin, another health behavior science major, noting billboards advertising the YMCA in Wilmington. “Having that community resource gives people a place to go, not just for exercise. It provides different health benefits,” she said.

Landgraf nodded in agreement. “You’re saying something about coming together as a group, making it a social event,” she said.

It’s Landgraf’s first time teaching an undergraduate course, but it’s yet another avenue for the UD alumna to continue her life’s work. Her passion for health equity is part of the reason why Landgraf was honored March 20 by the Association of University Centers on Disabilities for her state-level leadership in disability policy. In presenting her with the AUCD for All award for Leadership in State Policy, the AUCD lauded Landgraf for “spending a lifetime fighting for the rights of underrepresented groups.”

Inclement weather prevented Landgraf from receiving her award in Washington, D.C., but her daughter, Lauren, accepted the award – presented by U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester – on her behalf.

The AUCD event celebrated the innovative work being done at the state-level to bring change and improvement to the lives of individuals with disability and also increase their opportunities through research, advocacy and support. For Landgraf, it’s a reminder of the need to keep focused on health equity as a means to impact health on a larger scale.

“If we want to be a flourishing society, we need to address those root causes in long-term issues because we’re all impacted,” said Landgraf, who also serves as the director of the UD Partnership for Healthy Communities, a cross-college, cross-state initiative. “That has been my entire foundation from the time I started. I love to be on the ground, regardless of what population I might have the opportunity to work with.”

In class, Landgraf’s students learn from someone who has addressed health equity issues from two different vantage points – both as a cabinet-level secretary in state government and as a disability rights advocate challenging the state’s own policies and programs.

“She has been an innovator in the field of public health and public policy for years and has made impacts across the state of Delaware,” said Mazelin, who attends class while completing her practicum with Landgraf. “Her class has been an experiential opportunity that has been priceless.”

Landgraf’s leadership and practice in public health is a tremendous resource to her students in the classroom, said Kalyn McDonough, a doctoral student who serves as teaching assistant in the class. She provides to her students real-world examples of the ways in which poverty, disability and health are connected.

“Empowered by Rita’s guidance, these highly motivated and engaged students have shown a deep commitment in addressing the social determinants of health and supporting vulnerable populations that are disproportionately impacted,” McDonough said. “The students’ passion and intellect offer great promise for positive change in the field moving forward.”

Returning to campus has been an invigorating experience for Landgraf, who was inducted into the University’s Alumni Wall of Fame in 2011. Her hope is for UD to use its research strength to engage the community and drive lasting change to reduce health inequities in Delaware.

“This is an opportunity to continue the work, but with a different asset,” said Landgraf, who previously led the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Delaware, The Arc of Delaware and AARP Delaware. “I have the student body, the faculty, the great research UD does and the community. It’s just ripe.”

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