Psychology Lecturer Kari Commerford instructs a class of MBS students.

Western’s newest graduate program is the Master’s of Behavioral Science (MBS) in Rural Community Health, the latest in a line of expanding graduate offerings that now includes nine programs. Like many of Western’s other graduate programs, the MBS allows students to follow an accelerated 3+2 track, earning a Sociology degree on their way to a Master’s degree in five years.

MBS students study community and behavioral health, along with qualitative and quantitative research methods in their program’s foundational coursework. They then have options to delve into a breadth of electives taught by diverse faculty that includes classes on climate change and health, elder and youth care, violence and psychopathology, health inequities, geographic information systems (GIS), and geospatial analysis. 

Dr. Jessica Eckhardt is a Lecturer in Rural Community Health, coming to Western from a professorship at Northland College to join the Rural Health MBS program. Eckhardt’s background is rooted in sociology; she studies the environmental, health, and medical branches of the discipline to understand how social conditions, health systems, and the environment interact to influence people’s lives, and ultimately their wellbeing. 

“We use these behavioral science approaches to really look at the root cause of health, which for us is really focused on those social drivers [and] social conditions that a person is living in,” she notes.

Much of Eckhardt’s previous work focused on the social determinants of health, aspects of a person’s life that play a key, interconnected role in their wellbeing and include poverty, race, gender, housing, and employment. 

She notes that the program has three informal focus areas. “One is health equity, this idea that everybody regardless of their status–their racial status, gender status, socioeconomic status— that everybody deserves the opportunity and resources to live a healthy and well life.” 

The interplay between climate change and health, a growing field of study, is the second focus, and harm reduction, a broad set of strategies utilized in public health contexts to alleviate the risks associated with drug use, sexual activity, and other human behaviors, constitutes the third. 

Eckhardt’s current research concerns the intersection of environmental hazards and human health. In the past, she studied endocrine disruption (the process in which natural and human-made chemicals can disrupt our body’s natural processes), and how endocrine disruptors, which can be found in plastics, packaging, and other consumer goods, could be contributing to society’s high obesity rates. 

“There’s a lot of really strong evidence to suggest that if people are in contact with these chemicals, it can affect their metabolism, and therefore affect their weight,” she adds, noting a broader theory that environmental toxins more generally contribute to obesity. 

The MBS program, founded by Dr. Matt Aronson, was looking to bring aboard a full-time faculty member who could teach courses and oversee other key program elements, like recruiting. “I’m from Colorado so it was an easy decision for me, [coming and] living in Gunnison,” says Eckhardt, who just finished her first academic year at Western. 

Recently, an opportunity arose to expand the budding program’s capacity, a bill in the state legislature entitled the “Colorado Rural Health-care Workforce Initiative.” That bill, which has passed through the Colorado State Legislature and is anticipated to receive Governor Jared Polis’ signature, will allocate $65,000 annually in funding to Western’s Rural Health MBS program, and to 11 other collegiate programs statewide that are training the next generation of rural healthcare providers across various disciplines. “It would be a very strong investment from the state in rural health—which is desperately needed,” Eckhardt notes. 

She explains that approximately 90 percent of the bill’s prospective funding allocated for Western will be directed towards student scholarships. The students who receive scholarships distributed through the bill’s funding will be required to commit to two years of employment in rural Colorado. 

“That’s what I like about this bill–the funding is largely set aside for scholarships–scholarships for physicians [statewide] and scholarships for our students,” relays Eckhard, who adds that the MBS program can also utilize the bill’s funding to help alleviate student housing costs that might otherwise discourage their attendance. 

Another priority for Eckhardt is to incentivize those living within Gunnison Valley, or in adjacent communities, to come to Western. “Maybe they already live in the valley or in Salida or Montrose, maybe they already work in healthcare or in the nonprofit sector, but they want to get a Master’s degree to augment their [experience] and sharpen their skills,” she elaborates of her recruiting vision. 

Eckhardt hopes that as the MBS program matures, it can draw an increasingly diverse student body from non-traditional backgrounds to serve as the next generation’s health leaders—utilizing scholarships strategically to attract low-income, veteran, Indigenous, and other traditionally underrepresented students to Gunnison. 

She notes that Gunnison, like many rural areas, struggles with a set of systemic issues around health, which is compounded by our valley’s remoteness from major population centers. 

“There’s always transportation issues– in terms of healthcare delivery, that’s a big barrier…a lot of rural places have an aging demographic, that’s particularly challenging for older adults. Some rural areas [also] suffer from economic hardship,” says Eckhardt. 

She adds that faltering populations and economic downturns can shrink tax bases and lead to hospital closures and other reductions in care options. Another factor working against Gunnison is our region’s housing crunch, which can make it difficult to recruit and retain healthcare workers, and critical healthcare-adjacent personnel like teachers and behavioral health specialists. 

Eckhardt says that this problem spans all levels of the career and income scale, from the entry-level employees who may struggle to feasibly afford housing in the valley upon hiring, to retaining doctors who may find higher-quality, cheaper housing options elsewhere. 

One strategy to attack the thorny issue of recruitment is to focus on educating and upskilling those who already live here, training the next generation of rural healthcare leaders from within the community, something Eckardt notes is a focus of the nascent MBS program. 

A final factor she is concerned with is the recent uptick in income inequality within the valley. “Income inequality in and of itself is what can make people sick–that’s an alarming trend that we’re noticing just within the last couple years,” she says, which can compound an area’s existing problems, including escalating the risk of substance abuse and risky sexual behavior, which are already quite high in many areas of the Western Slope. 

But Eckhardt is hopeful that the Rural Health MBS program can serve to unpack some of the linkages between social determinants and health outcomes, devising creative ways to tackle the community’s most pressing health issues.

To that end, second year students are required to complete practicums in partnerships with a local sponsoring organization, although they can also opt to complete research theses. Eckhardt notes that student projects could take on many potential forms, but could include health data analysis or the development or evaluation of a health intervention program.

Student projects are taking form for the 2023 graduating class. One student’s prospective project includes the development of a suicide prevention program, possibly in coordination with Western amid the transition in the university’s on-campus counseling center from the Center for Mental Health to Gunnison Valley Health. 

Another fledgling project would entail an interview series to examine the impact of incarceration on the mental and physical well-being of men within Gunnison County’s jail system. The student hopes to track those impacts over time after the men are released, and to study the impacts of their incarceration on their social and familial networks. 

Eckhardt notes that the post-graduation opportunities for MBS students are expansive, and include careers spanning the nonprofit, government, and for-profit sectors. One major pathway for alums would be in health education and community health work, as well as more “direct” jobs with food pantries, hospitals, and individuals facing sex trafficking and homelessness in more client and patient-centric roles. 

MBS grads are also well prepared for data analysis and health science roles. “Health scientists, health research, data analysis– those are really big, sexy jobs right now. Those are probably the best paying jobs of the list,” Eckhardt adds, citing her dream to create a rural health database and research center focused on the west, like the one they have at the University of Minnesota. 

Other pathways exist for students to explore with a bit of creativity, including gigs like social autopsist, individuals who interview close connections of a deceased individual believed to have died by suicide to discern the driving factors. “That’s becoming—unfortunately—more in demand [because] there’s this need of understanding what is driving this increase in suicide, especially among youth,” says Eckhardt. 

Eckhardt notes that the program’s faculty are also offering continuing education (CE) credits for professionals over the summer through Western’s Extended Studies Office. That program’s first iteration targets police officers and other first responders around the topic of harm reduction, seeking to demystify the practice locally.

Further courses from MBS faculty will educate various different segments of the Gunnison community on topics like cultural empathy in the medical field and substance abuse within the valley. 

“Our faculty is really committed to the valley, and to the principle of improving rural health. That’s what I see from our faculty—they do really care,” says Eckhardt. “That’s another thing that makes this program unique–it’s rural-focused, but it’s in a rural area,” she says, before continuing:

“We’re asking you to move here…. we’re asking you to walk the walk, [and] some of our students are coming from huge cities, and that’s very different—there are just different problems, but we’re asking students to commit to the rural lifestyle for a while.”

To learn more, you can find the Rural Community Health MBS program on Instagram and on Western’s website.