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College of Arts & Letters launches new minor in health, humanities, and society

Author: Josh Weinhold

Hhs Minor

Notre Dame’s College of Arts & Letters has launched a new minor in health, humanities, and society, an interdisciplinary program designed to help students analyze the wide range of social and humanistic issues connected to health and medicine.

Housed in the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values, the 15-credit minor will offer courses that give undergraduates interested in health-related careers an understanding of the historical precedent, ethical dilemmas, cultural nuance, social complexity, and political economy associated with medicine — and how to apply those lessons to social health in local, scalable, and transferable ways. 

“There’s no better time than now to study the humanistic side of health and medicine,” said Vania Smith-Oka, an associate professor of anthropology and director of the new minor. “That’s been clearly demonstrated by a pandemic that has had wide-ranging effects on economic and political systems and presented a nearly endless series of social and cultural challenges. This experience has made it evident why it’s so important to prepare students to understand these complex matters underlying public health.”

Two required courses — The U.S. Healthcare System in Perspective and Contemporary Concerns in Medicine — develop a foundational understanding of the structure of health care systems and medical practices and how race, class, gender, identity, and age influence health and medical care, as well as pressing issues such as the pandemic, the opioid crisis, stem cell research, organ donation, and race-based medical inequities.

Vania Smith Oka 600
Vania Smith-Oka

Electives can be taken from a wide range of programs and departments and can be combined into a thematic concentration such as Gender and Health, the History of Biomedical Sciences, Global Health, Medicine and the Arts, and more.

By broadening students’ views and encouraging them to embrace new ways of thought, the program will better prepare them for success in a field full of ethical dilemmas, cultural nuance, social complexity, and political economy.

“Long-term, this program will make those entering medical-related careers better critical thinkers,” Smith-Oka said. “It will broaden the number of places they get experience from, which makes them better practitioners. Further developing their mental skillset will make them better at their jobs — and make their jobs better for them.”

The program also offers significant intellectual and professional engagement opportunities, including the Educating the Whole Physician Lecture Series, which feature prominent speakers addressing medicine, illness, disability, medical education, or other relevant issues. Funding is also available to students for research grants and internships. 

Anna Geltzer
Anna Geltzer

In addition, the program is offering course development grants to faculty to create even more medicine-related classes in economics, sociology, English, American studies, Romance languages, and other programs.

Community is a key point of focus for the program — both fostering it among undergraduate and graduate students and faculty who are interested in medical-related topics, and in engaging with the South Bend area in health settings. Essential to this effort are two postdoctoral fellows — Ijeoma Kola, a historian of science and medicine, and Kate McCabe, a scholar of gender, race, and sexuality — who are teaching and serving as mentors to undergraduate students.

“We seek to create an intellectual community across multiple levels,” said Anna Geltzer, the director of undergraduate studies for the minor and Reilly Center assistant director. “One of the things we’re thinking about is burnout among medical students and doctors, and helping students understand where that pressure comes from. The experience of working together, being a part of a collective, is both fun and essential to maintaining mental health now and in their careers.”