The practicum is a staple of the MPH degree at UNC Gillings and enables students to use the skills and knowledge that they have gained from their coursework. This experience also allows students to explore possible career paths prior to graduating from the program. The practicum is especially pertinent to the Public Health Leadership Program because leadership is a concept that is most effectively learned out in the field. We would like to take the time to highlight the following students: Anshula Nathan, Aninda Sen, and Karen Todd. In addition to celebrating these students’ great success through their practicum, the following information is also meant to serve as a resource to current and prospective students as they think about their own experience.
Where did you complete your practicum? I did my practicum at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) through the Health Research Training Program (HRTP).
Tell me about the planning process for your practicum. I tried to be as proactive as possible when I began planning for my practicum. I knew that I wanted to work in New York City and that I wanted to work on a project related to HIV. That was a good starting point for me. I also reached out to different faculty members to ask for advice on where to look. I applied for the Health Research and Training Program through New York City’s Health Department in January and went through a series of interviews to match with a project.
What tasks did you complete during your practicum? I worked specifically with the New York Knows testing initiative in the Bureau of HIV/AIDS in the Prevention and Control Unit. The goal of the initiative was to encourage everyone in the five boroughs of the city to get tested for HIV so that everyone knows their status. I worked primarily on two projects. I completed a mid-initiative report for the organization. I also managed the testing survey which was sent out to 200 partners to gauge efforts to promote testing and connect community members to services.
What skills did you develop through your experience? I learned a lot! Some of the hard skills that I developed was how to use Salesforce and Survey Gismo. I brushed up on my HTML and CSS coding. My practicum also helped me develop the skills to work, engage, and mobilize others to one aligned goal. For instance, I learned the key components of community engagement, working across disciplines and sectors, and how to meet community members where they are. My team also provided me with autonomy, so I was able to learn how to work and think on my own. I learned how to take the initiative with confidence, but be adaptive to programmatic changes when presented. Additionally, because I decided to do my practicum experience through HRTP, we were required to attend seminars that exhibited other priority initiatives across the NYC DOHMH, and had the option to attend workshops to learn and improve on different skills. For example, we had a seminar about the Center for Health Equality and our cohort was exposed to the systems-based work that the NYC DOHMH does in efforts to eliminate health inequities.
What is your favorite moment from the practicum? I have so many favorite moments from my practicum, so it’s hard for me to pick just one. During Pride Month in June, there were several community events, meetings, and projects. One of my favorite moments was working on the National HIV Testing Day in June, which was planned by the NYC DOHMH. I had the opportunity to see community engagement in action. We had 18 testing units and 70 agencies tabling for the event. Over 14,000 people passed through Union Square where the event took place. During the three-hour testing event, we had 320 people tested for the virus. It was really amazing to see the community to come together for a case!
What advice would you give to students as they prepare for their practicum? One of biggest advice is to start early! Some of the application processes for practicum can take a while so it would be wise to apply early so that you are not pressed for time. I also recommend applying broadly but within your scope. For instance, it was feasible for me to apply to programs in New York City financially because I have family in the area. Also, although it’s tempting, don’t automatically take the first practicum that you’re offered! Make sure that your practicum meets your expectations for your professional goals and the types of skills that you would like to gain.
Where did you complete your practicum? For my summer practicum, I travelled to Malawi where I worked as part of the UNC Water Institute research team that partnered with World Vision Malawi on their mechanized solar powered water project.
Tell me about the planning process for your practicum. I was interested in pursuing a global practicum. My friend who is also a PHLP student is a member of the Student Global Health committee at Gillings. She forwarded internship openings to me on a weekly basis. I came across the UNC Water Institute’s Malawi research opportunity in one of her emails in April, so I applied for it, and after a 2-week interview process, I was contacted by one of their lead researchers for the practicum. Before going to Malawi, my team and I underwent a week-long training camp at UNC. The training focused on field research methods, communication skills, travelling dos and don’ts, cultural differences, and if we have time, places to visit in Malawi.
What tasks did you complete during your practicum? My team members and I travelled together to six villages, where we conducted electronic surveys in order to evaluate the effectiveness and sustainability potential of mechanized water systems in a rural setting. We conducted water quality tests in order to check for safety standards of drinking water collected from water pumps and household storage containers. We also interviewed local businesses to understand the impact of World Vision solar pumps on the economic development of the local communities we had visited.
What skills did you develop through your experience? I was able to develop my qualitative and quantitative data collection skills, data storage methods, and communication skills. I understood the importance of collecting good quality data if one is to influence any form of improvements in public health, no matter what the setting. I also got to observe how a world-renowned NGO such as World Vision operates their WASH projects.
What is your favorite moment from the practicum? My favorite moment was when we visited the village of Josephat Mvula in the North of Malawi, and we came across the only fully functional water system among all the villages we had visited. We learnt a great deal about how they run operations such as fee collection, maintenance and systems management. The community was thriving because of the availability of safe drinking water, which was confirmed by the interviews we conducted with business owners in the village, and that was a very rewarding experience for all of us.
What advice would you give to students as they prepare for their practicum? I would advise all students to go into their experience with an open mind and a lot of patience. Sometimes, it will seem that the theories and strategies we learn in the classroom are not helping us in real life, and I personally found that it helps to keep from getting frustrated at one’s lack of experience in dealing with new, unfamiliar situations. I also felt that sometimes, the practicum experience was not quite what I had expected it to be on paper. What I would tell myself constantly is that this is a learning experience, and as long as I use this new knowledge to better my overall skill set, I can always use that to advance my future prospects. The one thing I would advise future students when it comes to their practicum search is that it is always a good idea to get started early on. Sakai usually has a lot of resources to help out with that. It is also important to stay connected with other students and sign up for weekly listservs because you may stumble upon opportunities that you may not have seen otherwise.
Where did you complete your practicum? I completed my practicum with the Department of Health Behavior right here at Gillings. I worked specifically with Noel Brewer and Melissa Gilkey who are both leading a project focused on effective messaging for HPV immunization. The goal of the project is to see how parents would respond to messages about getting their teens vaccinated for HPV.
Tell me about the planning process for your practicum. I connected with a PHLP alum that I knew. She basically passed my name around to people in the field just in case there was someone who was working a project. I also emailed around myself to see if anyone needed a student to work on a research project. Eventually, I found the project with Dr. Brewer and Dr. Gilkey, which was perfect since it is related to my background as a pediatrician.
What tasks did you complete during your practicum? I built a survey to create a large survey. I was responsible for both the content and the questions. Through previous research, the team identified 28 messages that are commonly used in the public health field along with seven concerns that parents have regarding the vaccination. We included different platforms of messages like printed information and video messages (which I delivered!) within the survey so that parents could rate each one on effectiveness.
What skills did you develop through your experience? I definitely developed the art of wordsmithing when I put together the survey. I also gained skills related to project management. This particular area was a big learning experience for me because I am pediatrician coming from private practice. In this setting, I act as my own boss, so I don’t have many opportunities to work in a team. I was able to work in a more team-oriented environment to meet a common goal through my practicum. I also enhanced my presentation skills. Although I am used to teaching in front of medical students, I am not used to speaking in front of a camera. For me, both scenarios are completely different experiences even though both involve presenting information.
What is your favorite moment from the practicum? Even though I was extremely nervous about speaking in front of a camera, I would have to say that my favorite moment from my practicum was filming for the videos for the survey. Staff from the Odum Institute filmed me and were really encouraging throughout the process. The film crew said, “you’re a natural,” which really made feel good! I was really able to step out of my comfort zone and grow through that experience. Filming for the video also opened up new opportunities for me professionally. After my practicum, I was employed by the project to conduct webinars for physicians and other healthcare staff on how to effectively communicate about the HPV vaccination based on the results from the survey.
What advice would you give to students as they prepare for their practicum? Something that was really helpful for me was to make a long list of what I would like to learn through my practicum experience. This list could involve both skills and specific content areas. This process really helped me hone in on my professional goals and also helped with my search for a project. I would also recommend that students look up people within public health especially in their area of interest. Don’t be afraid to contact them and ask if they have any relevant projects that they would like someone to help out with. Lastly, I would encourage students to try something new and go out of their comfort zone. I learned that from my own practicum through the videos.