Berkeleyan: A newspaper for faculty and staff at UC Berkeley


Berkeleyan HomeSearch BerkeleyanBerkeleyan ArchiveUCB NewsUCB Calendar

This Week's Stories:

Regular Features




Dear Editor: Public Health Graduate Students Speak Out

by Sunny Merik, Public Affairs
posted November 18, 1998

In Lawrence Wallack's class "Introduction to Public Health," students not only gain an overview of public health issues, but also learn how to write a letter to the editor, and in the process, discover the power of their public voice.

Wallack requires each of his 170 graduate students to write two letters to the editor of a newspaper or magazine concerning a public health issue.

"The idea is to amplify the voice of public health and reach opinion leaders," Wallack said. "The assignment also helps students learn to communicate clearly and concisely."

The letters are limited 250 words, the equivalent of one double-spaced typewritten page.

Between August and October, 50 student letters saw publication. The New York Times published about 26 -- five on one day alone. Letters also appeared in the LA Times, US News and World Report, SF Chronicle, SF Examiner, San Jose Mercury News and various other newspapers.

And two students had commentaries accepted by KQED radio.

Esther Tahrir, a first-semester grad student in community health education, had both her letters published. One, on homelessness, appeared the San Francisco Chronicle. The other, on people who pick up aluminum cans for income, was published in the San Francisco Examiner.

"Until we wrote our letters, I thought (in order to have a voice) you had to write a major article," Tahrir said. "I learned that I could write two or three strong paragraphs in response to an article, and have an impact."

The NY Times published letters dealing with children's health, vaccines aimed at the Third world, teenagers and tobacco, AIDS, Cesarean births and medical privacy. US News and World Report published letters about water pollution and healthier food.

First-year grad student in environmental health Sunessa Schettler, who works at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote a letter to The Guardian about Unocal's environmental record.

"When we first got this assignment, I thought it was hokey," Schettler said. "I didn't expect much to come of it. I thought the editors probably get a lot more interesting letters than mine. . . Having it published definitely made me feel that I'm an active participant in the media conversation on health issues.

"It was a great exercise," Schettler added. "If I read another article that struck me and I had something to say on the topic, I wouldn't hesitate to write a letter to the editor."

Wallack knows he is teaching more than textbook theory with his letters to the editor exercise.

"Public health issues affect millions of people," he said. "Public health professionals must be able to articulate their perspectives in the media if they are to shape the public discussion. Also, because these issues are matters of public policy, the letters pages become especially important. It is these pages that policy makers and opinion leaders pay special attention to."


UCB Home

This site is produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs, University of California, Berkeley.
Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
For comments concerning this web service please e-mail