The College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) has had two milestones in the past academic year.  

CHHS turned 50 years old at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year. There has been no formal celebration, as CHHS Director of Communications Callie Carr explained, instead celebrations spread out across the academic year. The homepage of the college’s website announces the 50 years of teaching, with a link to a 32-page magazine describing the community impacts and academics of the college, its departments, and its programs.  

The second is that CHHS received partial funding from the state of New Hampshire for what the college is calling its Health Sciences Initiative. According to meeting notes from a presentation from CHHS Dean Dr. Mike Ferrara to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), this funding was received in September. The initiative will strengthen the academic offerings of CHHS, particularly for three departments: the Department of Nursing, the Department of Occupational Therapy, and the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD).  

The Health Sciences Initiative gives $9 million to CHHS. This will be used to move the college from its current building, Hewitt Hall, to a larger building with approximately 50,000 square feet of usable space, Ferrara said.  

In 1995, then-chair, now professor emerita, Dr. Elizabeth Blesedell Crepeau compiled a 93-page report documenting the history of the Department of Occupational Therapy through the eyes of students and alumni. This report was written for the celebration of the 50 years of the Department of Occupational Therapy. The department is now 75 years old, celebrating its own anniversary alongside CHHS’s, said current chair Dr. Lou Ann Griswold. 

According to the report from Crepeau, Hewitt Hall has been home of the college since 1976, after a renovation for what was then School of Health Studies, now CHHS. CHHS has eight departments, and has effectively outgrown the space available in Hewitt Hall. For example, as CSD Chair Dr. Donald Robin described, the basement of the building has four faculty members sharing one research laboratory space. Typically, faculty get their own lab. 

The Health Sciences Initiative will allow for the occupation of a new building, either a renovated building or a newly constructed one. Robin suggested the college might renovate an already existing building but wasn’t sure. Ferrara could not be reached for an interview due to schedule conflicts and the coronavirus pandemic. 

UNH will partially support the initiative with $3.3 million. According to a presentation found on the University System of New Hampshire (USNH) website, the $9 million given by the state was to USNH, not UNH. The initiative, based on the dates of a document from the office of Governor Sununu and Dean Ferrara’s presentation, has been in the works since at least October 2018.  

In 2018, Sununu called it the “UNH Nursing & Health Sciences Initiative,” and a year later, in a DHHS meeting it was still referred to by referencing UNH’s nursing programs. This is because, as Robin said, “A large part [of the $9 million] is going to nursing because they’re going to take 100 students, which is a lot, and they need it and they need simulation rooms.” 

The reason there is so much interest in nursing is to supply the workforce. “There has been a real need for growth of nursing education in the state,” said Dr. Gene Harkless, Associate Professor in the Department of Nursing. The Department of Nursing has been in existence for over 50 years, Harkless said.  

Nursing, and other departments in UNH, have many community-wide, not just student, impacts. CHHS operates eight “centers” that serve the community for a variety of topics, and within each center is an even greater network of services or resources offered.  

“We’ve always been deeply engaged from a CHHS perspective on how UNH, CHHS serves the broader NH community,” Harkless said.  

The Health Sciences Initiative will, along with providing more space for CHHS and nursing, provide more simulation resources. The department currently has one Nursing Simulation Laboratory, and is due to have three with the Initiative.  

Academics are also due to change, Harkless said. “We are working to…keep us as leaders in the field.”  

The department is being assisted by a variety of other funding resources to strengthen academics, from Nurse Practitioner education to treatment for substance use disorder. “We’ve got this really wonderful coming together,” Harkless said of the funding sources and the opportunities they present.  

However, at the moment, the coronavirus pandemic has limited nursing majors’ clinical opportunities. Clinical agencies “asked that our students be excluded from clinical, mostly because they didn’t have enough PPE [personal protective equipment] to share and for students to use it,” Harkless said. 

Occupational therapy, said chair Griswold, will also see academic expansion under the Health Sciences Initiative. One main component of this expansion is the development of a clinical doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD).  

The department currently offers a bachelor’s and a master’s, but according to the departmental website, starting this fall, first-year majors can go through a six-year process of earning first their bachelor’s and then their OTD. A similar process has been available only through the Master’s, in a five-year program. To be an occupational therapist, Griswold said, one must have a higher degree than a bachelor’s.  

The OTD is just the latest development in the evolution of the department of Occupational Therapy. Griswold and the report from Crepeau described some of the craft-based courses majors originally had to take. These classes, such as woodworking, were important for the therapy of World War II veterans. Today, students take courses in the sciences, as well as applied courses.  

The initiative will benefit the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders both in academics and in research. Robin was hired a few years ago to build the department.   

“When I was hired, the ad said that they were looking for someone to come in, that could help make the program in the top 10 in New England. If they make it the top 10 in New England, that means it’s one of the top 10 in the country because BU and MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital] are in the top ten, so we’d have to be in the top 10 in the country and they knew that,” Robin said. 

“You can’t be in the top 10 without having a strong research program,” Robin continued. Research, he said, contributes to visibility, in turn boosting rankings. The department, which at the moment also only offers a Master’s, is developing a Neuroscience Ph.D. program.   

The new building for CHHS will provide more lab space, encouraging more research. The department is also hiring more tenure-track faculty. “The expansion is not just numbers of students.” Robin said.  

These faculty have helped build the research program of CSD. “We’ve established, really, a world class research facility…they’ve never done much research here,” Robin said.  

Robin has also been working on expanding the clinic the department runs, which provides treatment for people with a variety of clinical issues in the community. “We want to be a resource for the community in terms of people coming to get treated here. We want to be a resource for clinicians to come and get training in highly specialized techniques that we bring in and use our knowledge.” 

As with the other departments, academics, graduate and undergraduate, are also undergoing change: Robin facilitated the revision of the curriculums for the CSD major and master’s. For graduate students, he is looking to encourage “innovative teaching,” heavy on clinical work and rotations, where the faculty, instead of lecturers, serve as mentors. Undergraduates would not be excluded from this innovative process.  

“Changing how undergraduates get educated I think is really important these days, because students are not really learning how to think,” Robin said, concerned about the critical thinking abilities and students focusing more on their personal career than “giving back” to the community. 

These plans await. Robin looks forward to the new building. “Once we get a new building we will have the space and the wherewithal to sort of bring the change to fruition if you will.”