Two screen shots of George Shroeder talking on a Zoom call.
By Isabel Goyer

UNM Master of Public Health Degree: A Springboard to Create Positive Change

Giving back to the community is the hoped-for outcome of many degrees, and George Schroeder (MPH), has put in a career that is all about giving back to the people, working first in environmental protection and, later, in his current position as Senior and Social Services Manager for Bernalillo County (Bernco). During his long career there, he worked on creating and administering programs for county residents that would provide help where help is most needed and where it would do the most good.

Schroeder was already working in government back in 2003 when he decided to tackle a Master in Public Health degree (MPH), which was then administered by the UNM School of Medicine. Even while continuing to work full time, Schroeder was able to complete his coursework for the degree in five years and received his degree in 2008.
Like many others who pursue an MPH, Schroeder came to the program from an unlikely-sounding place; his undergraduate degree was in engineering. While it might seem like an odd fit, the synergies between the two areas of study, he pointed out, gave him a perspective on public health that students coming from other areas of study might have lacked.

From the get-go, Schroeder’s perspective was based on social determinants of health, a way of looking at public health using known factors that influence or cause barriers to access to health care. These social determinants include factors such as physical fitness, education, financial literacy and exposure to pollutants, to name a few.

Putting the Training to Use
He put that training to good use, working in local environmental analysis. Over the course of several years, he helped develop extensive data, down to a very fine, census-level-tract, on the effects of air pollution on the residents of one Albuquerque neighborhood. The data was eye-opening, making clear that the effects of smokestack pollution on residents was worse than anyone understood. The issue they discovered was that the pollution wasn’t being tallied cumulatively, so if a neighborhood was affected by more than one polluter, the cumulative effect wasn’t determined, which painted a picture that was far too rosy.

Once his team developed that data, including measuring the number of hospital admissions for childhood asthma and linking that data to known levels and sources of pollutants, the link was impossible to ignore, and it resulted in at least one large project with known potential for pollution from being built in that neighborhood.

In doing that work, Schroeder said, he felt as though he was using his MPH in a direct way to positively impact policy at the local level. Moreover, he said, the people that he worked with then have since joined the Air Quality Control and Land Use Planning Board, which has paid dividends long after his departure. That said, he also underscored the importance of patience in public health work.
“You can't really know what the outcome is going to be, but now 10 or 15 years later, the things we started are having an impact,” he said.

By design, the Master of Public Health degree curriculum at UNM focuses on diversity and inclusion, according to the college’s mission statement, “with an unwavering commitment to improving the health of New Mexicans and people around the world.” The UNM College of Population Health also offers dual degree options, with the MPH being a complement to a companion degree in Master of Arts in Latin American Studies, Doctor of Medicine or a different, self-styled degree program. A minor in Public Health is also an option. Concentrations include Community Health, Epidemiology and Health System Services and Policy.

When he looks back at his career in two distinctly different but equally important fields, Schroeder credits his studies in public health for much of his success. He also sees the degree program as being one that offers several diverse options to graduates, as well as opening doors to working in different fields depending on the graduate’s strengths and interests.

He points to one course that was key to unlocking the power of the field, GIS (Geographic Information Systems), which provided crucial tools while also being based on the scientific foundation that he got in statistics.

“The different kinds of high-quality studies that can be conducted with those tools were of great benefit to me,” he said.

Help Where Help is Needed
Schroeder eventually landed at Bernalillo County, where he’s worked as Manager of Senior and Social Services for many years.

Right off the bat, he put his MPH to work. After employing some recent UNM graduates from the College of Population Health to gather data on the needs of Bernalillo County seniors, Schroeder’s team determined the areas they needed to focus on. These included, to no one’s surprise, food security, preventing falls, transportation, financial literacy, physical fitness and more.

“At the time, our senior services didn't really have any programmatic offerings,” he said. So using the data his team had developed, he was then able to hire staff and have them go out and either deliver programming directly based on their knowledge and expertise.… or to [rely on their training to] hire good contractors.”

It was work, he said, that was based on the fundamentals stressed at the College of Population Health, where his assistants prepared for just such work. “So, we were able to offer programs like tai chi, Zumba, and chair yoga,” activities that all help improve balance and muscle tone, all key to fall prevention.


Schroeder sees a degree in public health as “training in community development.” The key, he said, is to understand the importance of social determinants of health and, equally important, how to quantify their impact on the population so a case can be made for policy change.
Isabel Goyer

Schroeder sees a degree in public health as “training in community development.” The key, he said, is to understand the importance of social determinants of health and how to quantify their impact on the population so a case can be made for policy change.

“The leadership of the local government,” he stressed, “has to see a need for public health knowledge.” The key, he said, is to convince local government leaders to see the need for the public health initiatives specifically and public health benefits in general.

Public health is a good area of study for the generalist, and it's also good for a person with a specific interest in a specific outcome. “It can be hard for young people to have confidence," Schroeder said, “that they are going to be able to make a living solving housing problems. If you get a degree in public health and you focus on all the social determinants around housing and how housing quality affects health, my gosh, there's a lifelong career right there. 

“Public health,” he said, “should attract and retain people who want to utilize their knowledge and skills to be of service somewhere in the world “It doesn't mean you have to be a government employee. You could work in private industry, or you could create your own business around it.”

“You never really know what kind of impact you’re creating with this program and by growing it and keeping it at a national standard [through accreditation and the creation of a School of Public Health],” he added. “That's important work right there, because you really don't know what kind of impact you're going to indirectly have just by graduating good people and just letting them go do their thing.”


Dramatic Ways Public Health Education Has Changed


  1. In the year 2001, U.S. institutions of higher learning awarded 1,480 undergraduate degrees in public health.
  2. In 2020, those same colleges and universities awarded 18,289 pubic health undergraduate diplomas, an increase of 1,100 percent. The University of New Mexico offers undergraduate degrees in Population Health, a similar course of study.
  3. Also in 2020, U.S. colleges and universities awarded 18,044 master of public health degrees.
  4. The rise is attributed at least in part to global events, including the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that put the focus on the need for such workers.
  5. At the same time, a University of Minnesota School of Public health study found that there were 80,000 too few public health workers among local and state governments nationwide.

Source: A joint study by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH), Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Categories: College of Population Health