Graduate School of Public Health

Professor John Elder Receives Teaching Award

John ElderPublic health professor Dr. John Elder was honored with the University Senate’s annual Teaching Excellence Award in April. The award recognizes the exemplary contributions SDSU teacher-scholars have made to the education of students.

Dr. Elder arrived at SDSU in 1984 to join the faculty at the newly opened Graduate School of Public Health, after a stint as a non-tenure-track research professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.  As the director of the Institute for Behavioral and Community Health (IBACH), he recognized that San Diego’s Latino community was being overlooked in national conversations on public health, so he endeavored to learn more about the people in his new city. He learned Spanish from auditing SDSU classes and reading newspapers from Tijuana. And, critically, he won a grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Instead of saying, ‘These are the things the community needs,’ the grant allowed him to ‘Go and find out the needs of the community,’” Elder said. With the help of one of his first graduate students, Gregory Talavera, Elder spent a year meeting with community members, assessing their nutritional needs, school lunch programs and cooking habits. The two also identified the cultural barriers to implementing health programs and opportunities to integrate culture into interventions. Armed with this knowledge, Elder applied for and was awarded funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which helped him grow the university’s public health program. NIH has consistently supported his work ever since, making him one of the university’s most highly funded researchers.

When Elder arrived at SDSU, nearly every public health graduate student was Caucasian—a poor reflection of the city’s ethnic diversity. Hoping to diversify the students in the program, he placed a special emphasis on recruiting students who were bilingual, had multicultural experiences and deep knowledge of the local community. It paid off. Within a few years, Latino students were well-represented in the GSPH. “When you have people who look like you, who speak your language, who have names that sound like yours, it’s much less intimidating to enter and succeed in a graduate program,” Elder says.

Currently he teaches a graduate-level health communication course. After 33 years at SDSU, he’s still looking for ways to keep the curriculum fresh and relevant. If you visit his class today, you’ll likely find students developing and analyzing their own social media–based campaigns. The majority of the course materials are found on a Tumblr page.

Dr. Elder’s intense commitment to the San Diego community and SDSU students has earned him the respect of many students over the years. He has inspired many of his students to pursue careers in public health. His first graduate student, Gregory Talavera, went on to become a medical doctor and is a respected public health researcher at SDSU in his own right.  The president and CEO of North County Health Services, Irma Cota, earned her master of public health from SDSU. So did City of San Diego Commissioner April Riel. Hundreds of public health professionals working in clinics and health organizations throughout the county cut their teeth at SDSU—all under the tutelage of psychologist and behavioral scientist John Elder. If history is any guide, a few of these students might return to teach a new generation of the university’s students. Four SDSU professors—Talavera, Guadalupe X. “Suchi” Ayala, Susan Woodruff and Noe Crespo—all took classes taught by Elder. A fifth, Elva Arredondo, worked with Elder as a postdoctoral scholar.

“Dr. Elder has provided invaluable support in my development as a scientist,” says Arredondo, who studies health disparities in the GSPH. “He not only facilitated my involvement in large scale research projects, but also helped me explore my research interests.” His legacy as a teacher, researcher and mentor resounds throughout SDSU’s and San Diego’s communities, adds Ayala, associate dean for research in the College of Health and Human Services and the current director of IBACH.

“One of the most important attributes that Dr. Elder brings as a teacher and mentor is his ability to see every student’s individual potential and to raise their sights for what might be possible for themselves, their families and their communities,” Ayala says. “He is among the most important reasons why many of us are here and remain at SDSU.”

President Hirshman to Leave SDSU

SDSU President Elliot Hirshman announced in March that he has accepted the presidency of Stevenson University in Maryland. His last day at SDSU will be June 30. Hirshman has served as the president of SDSU since 2011.

During Hirshman’s time as president, SDSU has raised its profile as a major public research university. SDSU ranks in the top 10 for students studying abroad and for ethnic and economic diversity and the university is recognized nationally for increasing retention and graduation rates.

Under Hirshman’s leadership, SDSU has implemented an integrated budget and financial strategy, created a new strategic plan, established and endowed the Susan and Stephen Weber Honors College, and built and remodeled facilities across campus.

California State University Chancellor Timothy White has appointed Sally Roush as interim president of SDSU. Roush has served in various capacities at SDSU for 31 years. She initially joined SDSU in 1982 as Director of Personnel Services and was promoted to Senior Vice President for Business and Financial Affairs in 1994. She served in this role until she retired in 2014. Roush led the steering committee for SDSU’s strategic plan “Building on Excellence” which will be in its final year when Roush assumes the interim role.