Active on Campus — Student stories of Global Health
A Local Global Perspective
Chris Gunther’s (left) practicum
with the New Orleans Health
Department has already led to a
permanent job with the city. He
credits the city’s mayor, Mitch
Landrieu (right), with the vision
to see violence as a public health
issue and not just a criminal issue.
The SPHTM’s strong focus on international health was one of the elements that drew Chris Gunther to the school, but it’s not what kept him here.
Originally from a rural community in the Shenandoah Valley, Gunther knew that he was drawn to cities and always knew that that an MPH was in his future. He anticipated that he would earn a degree, then go abroad to work.
A series of opportunities and a fair amount of luck changed all that.
To figure out how he got from a career abroad to one in the Crescent City, you have to go back to when Gunther graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By that point, he had attended open house at SPHTM and both the city and the school had really drawn him in. He knew he definitely wanted to come to New Orleans, so while waiting to hear about his acceptance to SPHTM he applied to TeachNOLA, a nonprofit organization that preps mid-career professionals and recent college graduates to teach in the classroom. One way or another, Gunther was coming to New Orleans.
When he was accepted into both programs, he had to make a choice. Gunther deferred his admission to SPHTM and began a 5-week training program designed to ready him to begin teaching in the fall. In July 2010, Gunther began teaching middle school science at SciTech Academy in New Orleans’ Garden District.
“My first year teaching was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Gunther admits. Although he felt that TeachNOLA did a good job preparing him, many of his students faced much greater challenges outside of the classroom than he was prepared to deal with. Poverty, crime, and a lack of family or other support impacted many of his students. “As a teacher, it’s difficult to deal with these things. Sometimes science seemed like the least important thing in the lives of these kids.”
Still, the experience taught Gunther a lot and he’s glad the program initially brought him to New Orleans. It gave him the opportunity to uncover some of the deep-rooted challenges the city faces. And it inspired him.
After one year teaching, Gunther was a student again, although he continued to teach part-time as a literacy instructor. Instead of joining the Department of Global Health Systems and Development, however, he switched to epidemiology where he could learn population-level analysis skills. Since he was no longer working, he had to find a job and quickly landed a graduate assistant position working for Associate Dean for Research Geetha Bansal.
Bansal hired Gunther and two other students to develop the research resources web pages housed on the school’s website. Although most of the resources already existed, they were scattered across the site or housed locally in the departments. A key component of Gunther’s task was to develop the Research Portfolio Directory, which cross referenced faculty research into categories and subcategories, making it available for prospective students, funders, potential grant partners, and anyone interested in learning more
about the school’s research.
By the close of his first year, Gunther began considering practicum placements. Out of the blue, he emailed SPHTM alumna Karen DeSalvo to see if she had any opportunities at the New Orleans Health Department. DeSalvo is the city’s health commissioner.
DeSalvo was looking for a student, someone who could analyze a new program to look at instances of domestic violence among WIC clinic clients. Gunther’s practicum project would draw on his epidemiology skills to analyze the data to make it useful.
Or at least it would have. On day one, Gunther learned that the program wasn’t working out as they had planned. So instead of analyzing the data, Gunther was suddenly in
charge of designing and implementing the program.
“It was probably a better experience than had I been just crunching data for the summer,” he said. In this new role, Gunther partnered with the New Orleans Family Justice Center, learning the ins and outs of family and domestic violence and figuring out how to add that into a WIC program.
Although the practicum started as just a summer program, the health department’s efforts were not done by the end of the summer. “It was a much bigger program than I had
understood,” Gunther says and he continued working on it through March of this year.
By then, Gunther was sold on the approach of addressing violence from the city’s health department and he lobbied to stay on. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was becoming more focused, himself, on addressing violence from a public health perspective. “He speaks about it as an epidemic,” says Gunther, which he finds encouraging. All of these elements came together and a new position was created in response the mayor’s push to end violence. Gunther now serves as
the Violence & Behavioral Health Program Lead overseeing the family violence prevention program.
He considers himself lucky to have his SPHTM connections because he has been able to work with Katherine Theall and Cathy Taylor, both associate professors of global community health and behavioral sciences who work on violence prevention for women
Looking back over the past three years, Gunther is amazed at the unanticipated direction his life has taken. “My career track has really changed,” he said. “When I came here, I was really interested in international health. My thinking about my career has changed entirely.”
“I also wouldn’t have thought about violence as a public health issue. But then I read a Times-Picayune article about violence in the city over the past 10-15 years and thought about all I had seen as a teacher.”
Gunther graduated in May but has no plans to leave the city. It’s obvious listening to him that he now sees himself as a New Orleanian. “It’s really important for us as a city to think about violence as a public health issue,” he says. He’s also proud of the progress the city has made in improving public health in New Orleans, which has been recognized nationally. In February, New Orleans was one of six communities to be awarded a Roadmaps to Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recognizing community partnerships that are helping people live healthier lives.
He credits DeSalvo for the dramatic changes to the city’s health department, with designs on turning it into a model for the nation. “We are getting there, for sure,” says Gunther. For the immediate future, Gunther is set to be a big part of that change.