During pandemic disruption, Gillings students and alumni create new learning opportunities

December 16, 2020

COVID-19 has left many students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and beyond in need of vital financial support and learning opportunities. This spring, when nearly 50 graduate and undergraduate students in the Department of Health Policy and Management lost critical internships needed to fulfill degree requirements, the department coordinated with an ardent alumni community working in a variety of health care sectors to devise a solution.

Dr. Morris Weinberger

Dr. Morris Weinberger

“Our students want internships that provide them with the experience needed to compete for positions when they graduate in 2021,” said Morris Weinberger, PhD, Virgil N. Slee Distinguished Professor of Healthcare Quality Management and chair of health policy and management. “We heard from some alumni asking what they could do to support our students, and when many of our Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA), Master of  Science in Public Health (MSPH) and Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH) students saw their internships canceled, we reached out to alumni for assistance.”

Jeffrey Simms

Jeffrey Simms

Health policy and management program directors, Weinberger, Director of Student Life and Alumni Relations Jeffrey Simms, MSPH, and Career Services Coordinator Cathy Padgett worked with alumni, faculty and other health-related partners to create remote internships or experiential learning opportunities for students in organizations that included health departments, hospital systems and coverage providers across the state and country.

For students whose new internships were unpaid, alumni also provided financial support through a dedicated student internship fund in addition to assistance from the Carolina Student Impact Fund and the Gillings Student Relief Fund.

Rachel Singley

Rachel Singley

In search of an opportunity to work on a project addressing perinatal mental health that wouldn’t take her far from home, Rachel Singley connected with Belinda Pettiford (MPH ’93), director of the women’s health branch of the North Carolina Division of Public Health, and Tara Owens-Schuler (BSPH ‘92), perinatal health unit manager. Together they designed an internship opportunity for Singley to develop an informational poster about the work done by the Maternal Mortality Review Committee (MMRC) in the women’s health branch.

This project gave Singley, who is pursuing both a Master of Science in Public Health and a doctoral degree in health policy and management, a chance to observe meetings for the MMRC and the Taskforce on Maternal Health. It gave her valuable insight into the research and work being done by professionals in the field of perinatal mental health.

“Being able to see that work that is being done in these committees and task forces has given me a solid foundational understanding of maternal health as a whole,” said Singley. “A public health challenge that has been presented as a result of COVID-19 is how providers care for birthing people when it is not safe to be in public spaces, such as doctor’s offices. Many public health professionals are working to improve access to telehealth services, which could alleviate safety concerns.”

Violetta Saldanha

Violetta Saldanha

The pandemic forced MHA student Violetta Saldanha to move back to her home in New York City to finish her spring semester. The city was ravaged by COVID-19 and could no longer offer many of the internships that Saldanha had researched. This led her to connect with Glen Trachtenberg (MHA ’16), who at the time was director of hospital operations at Lennox Hill Hospital, to design an opportunity to work on an article and guidebook on how the hospital handled the COVID-19 crisis.

“Seeing how Lenox Hill handled such an uncertain and intense pandemic was a great opportunity for me to witness. I hope to one day be a leader in a health care system where I, too, will encounter many uncertain and challenging situations,” said Saldanha. “Lenox Hill had to create a new communication structure, create more bed capacity and allow flexibility within staffing – all while constantly adapting as new information was discovered about COVID-19 every day. I saw that through organization, communication, teamwork and clinical excellence, positive patient experiences are possible even during such a difficult and uncertain time.”

Saldanha was also able to support an internship project at Duke Regional Hospital remotely from N.Y. over the summer. She has continued to work with this hospital throughout the fall semester.

Collaboration between the Department of Health Policy and Management, alumni and other health-related partners created more than 40 of these learning experiences for students, ultimately without putting graduation plans at risk.

“As a department, we appreciate how our alumni and health care partners rallied to offer practical experiences for our students in the midst of the pandemic,” said Simms. “Their willingness to be creative and identify projects for students reflects a commitment to investing in the development of future health care leaders.”

As of December, many of the organizations that canceled their internship experiences in the summer are preparing to recruit students for the summer of 2021. However, some organizations that traditionally offered internship experiences are still suspending their formal summer internship programs for the immediate future.  The strong relationship between health policy and management faculty, staff, students and alumni can once again provide a safety net should students need assistance finding creative internship solutions in the future.


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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