I was busy applying for international practica when COVID-19 still seemed like a distant threat. Having a “boots on the ground” experience was very important to me, and an international experience was something I had been looking forward to since accepting UNC’s offer of admission. At the end of February, I was thrilled to be offered an opportunity that would allow me to put my nascent public health skills into practice in Guatemala. With one week to consider whether I wanted to accept or turn down the offer, I primarily focused on weighing my own personal and professional growth opportunities. After thoroughly thinking through the pros and cons, I decided the day before my deadline that I would accept the offer the following morning.
It was right at that time, however, when my awareness of the true threat of COVID-19 grew tremendously. I wasn’t terribly afraid for my own wellbeing, since I am a young adult and at the time the general sentiment was that the disease was not incredibly dangerous for people like me. But it occurred to me that there I was, intentionally choosing to work in an area with poor infrastructure and limited healthcare services. How was potentially introducing a deadly infection into an already underserved area in any way serving the best needs of the community? Although the school had not yet announced travel restrictions, I turned down that offer and focused on applying to positions within U.S. borders, then within N.C. borders as the severity of the situation became clearer and the school issued new mandates.
Ultimately, I was incredibly fortunate to be offered an opportunity to work with the Disaster Research Response Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. While it is nothing like what I had imagined I would be doing when I first started my practicum search process, there are numerous benefits. My project involves working alongside program leaders in the United States, Japan, and Canada, taking steps towards developing a similar disaster research response program for countries in the ASEAN region. Not only am I being exposed to several countries and their health systems, but I am also having multiple opportunities to network with international partners. Additionally, because I am doing my work from my home in Carrboro, I will be able to continue on this project into the next academic year, giving me a richer and more in-depth experience than I would have had in a 5-10 week practicum abroad.
This is not the practicum experience I had expected, but as COVID-19 has taught us, public health is not a great field if you are uncomfortable working with the unexpected. The work I am doing now is incredibly different, but there have been just as many positive changes as negative changes. I am still getting valuable experiences for professional growth, and I can rest easy knowing that I did not put my desire for a novel experience or my education before the best interest of a vulnerable community.