Pro Baseball Player Is Inspired by Class at UC Berkeley School of Public Health

Mark Canha and Professor Robin Flagg practicing social distancing.

This spring, more than 200 hundred students logged in through Zoom twice weekly to watch  Health Policy and Management professor Robin Flagg lecture about climate change, Medicaid, and maternal health.  

Each Monday and Tuesday, when the UC Berkeley School of Public Health class met online, students split up into four sections to debate current health policies. The only thing that is unusual about this online class: Oakland A’s outfielder and first baseman Mark Canha was in attendance.

“You could say I’m used to having to balance my courses because when I was an [full-time] undergraduate, back when I was of college age, I had to balance my schedule while also being a student-athlete,” Canha, a 31-year-old longtime San Jose resident, said. “Now it’s different. I’m still an athlete, but I have a family now.”

After a 10-year break to play ball, Canah is back in school, attending classes at UC Berkeley to complete his undergraduate degree.

Canha completed Flagg’s Introduction to Health Policy course as a part of the degree requirements for his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley. He’s a political economy major with a concentration in public health. He started at UC Berkeley more than 10 years ago, but in 2010 he was drafted into Major League Baseball, which temporarily suspended his academic career. Now, he is finishing up his degree.

From arguing for a single-payer healthcare system in a class debate to researching the delivery of federal relief funds to doctors serving Medicaid patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canha said he learned a lot in Flagg’s course. He said that it was an eye-opener to realize how relevant the information in the class was during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.

“I learned a lot about racial disparities and how there are gaps in healthcare coverage across the country, particularly in low-income communities,” said Canha. 

“My goal in the course is for students to be able to pick up any newspaper and know what’s going on in the healthcare industry in our country,” Flagg said. “They should know the debates about Medicaid, Medicare, the ACA, and how COVID-19 is affecting access to healthcare because a lot of people have employer-based healthcare and lost access when they lost employment.”

She said that racism and the coronavirus pandemic go “hand in glove” and that her goal is for the next generation to be engaged in education and policy-making rather than be too focused on public health theory. 

“I want students to be excited about being the solution,” she said. “Their voting makes a difference. Students go back to their parents, families, and communities and go back to helping other people after this class. I think healthcare policy is cool, and I think it’s cool that Mark [Canha] wants to do it.”

When Canha first emailed Flagg about the course, he wanted to know if the class would be meeting asynchronously due to his rigorous baseball training schedule. Flagg initially told Canha that he had to be present in every class, but after several other students asked to make this class asynchronous, she decided that it made sense.

“After the eighth or ninth person [asked], I thought maybe I should be a little bit flexible. Mark was one of those people, and when he first emailed me I said, ‘No, you have to show up,’” Flagg said. “After that he told me that he had a strict baseball schedule and that he wanted to take the class to finish his course requirements and graduate, as he wasn’t able to when he was drafted.”

Having the class meet asynchronously helped Canha balance his work, family, and the completion of his studies.

“Because I’m a Berkeley student that technically has a suspended academic career due to my profession, I’m still trying to finish up my degree, and playing baseball makes that difficult,” Canha said. “I’m trying to balance family life, too. Thankfully, my wife is supportive and education has a high value for both of us, so there was definitely ample time for me to devote to that class.”

After completing the course, Canha is doing his part to understand health policy and disparities in healthcare in America. 

“I reached out to Robin [Flagg] recently about racial disparities in healthcare, and it helped me understand the problems that we have in healthcare in this country,” Canha said. “While it’s not surprising to know, it’s made me feel that I need to be more invested in these issues because understanding can help me contribute and inform more people about how healthcare works.”

With a long career in baseball ahead of him, Canha still has ambitions to continue his public health studies.

“I really enjoyed this class, so I think, in the future when I go back to [finish] school, I’ll choose public health [classes] because it made sense to me and it’s applicable to what’s going on in our world today,” he said.