Gillings Global Health Blog

Students and global health experts share their experiences working with communities.

Juggling a Practicum Alongside School

As the semester winds down and final assignments are being turned in, you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief from Gillings students over our Zoom calls. Though it does not look like class formats will be much different in the Spring, it is still a relief to have our first all-remote semester under our belts. And of course, next semester we will not have the added stress of election season, and hopefully the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will help instill the optimism that has been waning over the last few weeks as case counts soar. But for me, there is yet one more reason the end of this semester stands out from others: I finally get to double down on my practicum with the National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s Disaster Research Response Program (I’m still trying to fit that into an elevator pitch. Any suggestions are welcome.) I am currently finishing my first deliverable, an asset and needs mapping report for the ASEAN region, and will soon be getting started with the second, a program plan for disaster research response.

I remember hearing from a second-year student last fall that she had started her practicum quite late and was still working on it. “That definitely won’t be me,” I remember thinking. Well the joke is on me. That is exactly what happened, although the circumstances were somewhat different and involved a pandemic.

That said, having an extended practicum has actually been, for the most part, a fantastic experience. For any first-year student reading this who is weighing priorities and struggling to make decisions, keep this in mind:

A longer practicum:

–       Gives you more networking opportunities

–       Allows you to apply even more skills that you will be learning in your third semester

–       Gives you time to absorb more

–       Gives you the option of taking on bigger projects

–       Looks better on a resumé (Disclaimer: I don’t have a job yet, so take this with a grain of salt)

Keep reading, though. Before you open a new tab to start booking that summer trip to Australia that you have been dreaming of every day since March while waiting for your sourdough to rise, keep the following points in mind.

Coupling a practicum with class coursework can:

–       Make it difficult to juggle additional extracurricular activities

–       Challenge your sleep schedule

–       Cause you to doubt whether there are actually 24 hours in a day

–       Make you forget that all your classes are in the same time zone

Partially completed "checklist" of tasks to keep me motivated while working on the assets and needs mapping report.

Partially completed “checklist” of tasks to keep me motivated while working on the assets and needs mapping report.

Juggling both coursework and a practicum has been difficult at times. I’ll admit, there were nights I did not get quite as much sleep as I should have, and on a couple assignments I started reciting the age-old wisdom, “Ps get degrees,” something you never would have heard me utter nine months ago. But the benefits have outweighed the costs. I came to my MPH program thinking the practicum would be the most important part of my time here, and I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity. What better way to take full advantage of it than to make it three times longer than intended? I have had the opportunity to attend far more meetings, meet more professionals, do more research, and take on much larger deliverables than I could have done in the standard 5-week practicum. I have learned how to juggle completely different but simultaneous responsibilities, and to communicate openly when a suggested deadline just did not seem feasible. I have devised little tricks for keeping myself motivated, such as breaking up tasks into ridiculously little sub-tasks and posting them on my wall like one enormous checklist. And I have finally learned how to set aside “me” time.

While the semester has been great and I have enjoyed all my classes, I cannot wait to submit that final assignment so that I can truly focus on my practicum. With the extended winter break, it will be great to have something to occupy my time, and I look forward to taking advantage of even more benefits now that I can dedicate my attention to my work with my preceptor.

– Tamara

Life in the Era of Zoom

As I sat down to write this blog, it really hit me that it is already the end of September. It’s been over 6 months since this pandemic started and about 5 months since I began my practicum. Reflecting back, I entered this pandemic with feelings of uncertainty. Transitioning to classes online seemed fine at first since it was already classes we were used to. Since North Carolina cases were not as bad initially, I still saw my close friends safely and following guidelines. Nothing felt like an extreme change.

However, as time went on, the pandemic began to take its toll on me as it inevitably has on everyone else. Even simple things like going to the grocery store became a whole fiasco of timing it so the store isn’t crowded or being wary of grabbing takeout. As we began to bunker down even more strictly, it became hard to not feel frustrated at times.

Needing a break from North Carolina, I ended up going back to my parent’s place for a bit in New Jersey. When I relayed these feelings to my mom, she made a point that I hadn’t considered before. For the first time in over 6 years, I was actually home for more than one week.  I had never considered it given that I talk to my family frequently but once it came to my attention, I thought back to how much I’ve missed in my family life.

Daily walks with my mom and brother.

Daily walks with my mom and brother.

Thinking about this in terms of my practicum, if I had gone to Zambia this summer, I would have missed the time I spent with my family. Don’t get me wrong, I still would have loved to do my practicum in person. However, missing one opportunity allowed me multiple other ones. If I had gone to Zambia, I would’ve spent maybe a couple months then and returned. Despite the challenges that came with doing the practicum remotely, I had the privilege of seeing my project from start to finish. Remote work also allowed for continuity with the project so despite my practicum officially ending soon, I’ll be staying on a while longer to help finish papers. Even though the study I worked on was not the original study I had signed up to do my practicum with, I developed qualitative data analysis skills that I really feel are an assets to future work. Importantly as well, I developed friendships and networks through Zoom, something which I thought would be very difficult.

Learning how to cook different cuisines this summer!

Learning how to cook different cuisines this summer!

As I wind down on my official time with this practicum and work on my deliverables, I am really thankful for the opportunity to work with the Zambia hub. My practicum was everything I had wanted it to be and I got more out of it than I had expected from remote work. I’m grateful for both the community here at Gillings and in Zambia for making this summer a great one!

Aditi

Family Time and The Final Stages

Wearing a mask at RDU.

Wearing a mask at RDU.

I can’t believe it’s already September. For the most part, I remain in Carrboro with my roommate, only seeing a tiny social circle. I’m still on the sourdough bread making train and successfully grew a small handful of tomatoes on my back porch.

I took a break from my work in mid-July to visit my family in Massachusetts. Flying was not so bad – RDU was pretty empty and everyone wore masks. In Massachusetts, I was able to easily obtain a negative Covid rapid test (results in about 2 hours!) so that I was able to also visit some family in Connecticut. My mom, my sisters, and I drove down to see my cousin and her new baby (7 weeks!), her brother and his two babies (7 months and 3 years), their spouses, my aunt and uncle, and my grandmother. My family then drove up to Maine where we spent the week on Mount Desert Island, close to where my dad grew up. We spent the week hiking, biking, and swimming, perfect outdoor activities to stay apart from other people. Acadia National Park is amazing. In birding news, I saw some Common Eiders, three Bald Eagles, and a Black Guillemot in Maine.

My mom, my two sisters, and I on a bike ride on the Acadia National Park carriage trails.

My mom, my two sisters, and I on a bike ride on the Acadia National Park carriage trails.

My birthday cake! I celebrated 25 years with my family on August 6th.

My birthday cake! I celebrated 25 years with my family on August 6th.

With regards to my practicum, I am currently working on wrapping up the final stages of our project. I am currently drafting a write-up of my data analysis results and discussion in the form of a manuscript. As a refresher, my practicum is conducting a data analysis on a household survey in rural Western Uganda. The survey looked at bed net use and malaria status in children while collecting geographic factors. With Varun Goel from the geography department, we have looked at the relationship between geographic factors, bed net use, and malaria status. By showing that malaria is rare at high elevations, we can provide evidence for more effective distribution of malaria prevention efforts. By examining who owns bed nets, we can show that people in the most rural areas are underserved by bed net distribution through health centers.

Enjoying the slightly cooler weather on my front porch.

Enjoying the slightly cooler weather on my front porch.

Although I’ve encountered some delays along the way, it’s been incredibly rewarding to take an analysis from start to finish. I’ve always known that I was terrible at work-from-home, and this summer has been no exception. Starting up classes has been great for my productivity because I love having more routine. As the weather just begins to cool off, I’m also enjoying returning to my favorite cafes to enjoy their well-spaced outdoor seating.

I’m also  really enjoying my classes this semester. I’m taking One Health, mHealth, and Pandemics in addition to my concentration courses, Implementation Science for Global Health and Professional Development. It’s been really nice to have lots of opportunity to work on topics I’m really interested in.

Stay Safe,

Claire M. Côté

Endings and Beginnings

Looking back on the summer, I cannot believe how quickly my practicum flew by. As the first week of school came to a close on August 14th, so did my practicum at NARAL Pro-Choice NC. The last week of my practicum was a busy one, as I began to acclimate to my new classes while finishing up my projects from the summer. Although my summer was mostly spent sitting behind a desk, I am really excited about the work I was able to accomplish.

My partner and I at Hanging Rock

My partner and I at Hanging Rock

Throughout my practicum, I examined the communication strategies implemented by crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), also known as fake clinics, and researched the manipulation tactics they use. I was also able to interview a variety of stakeholders in order to better understand their perspectives and priorities on repro health and justice. All of my practicum work was sprinkled with fun activities, including exploring the beautiful NC outdoors, trying some new DIY projects, and teaching parking lot workout classes at Threehouse Studios in Durham.  I was able to take a short trip to the Outer Banks, hike some new destinations, and find new places to sweat outdoors.

Rachel

UNDERESTIMATING THE STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Working

Working

As I come to the end of my summer practicum, addressing patient satisfaction in maternal health services in Ghana, I ponder on how underestimated the power in numbers are. Just like the popular African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to far, go together,” I reflect on my overall experience in comparison to the adage which brought a whole lot of understanding and meaning to my life and how I approach my career. It further reflects the importance of multidisciplinary approach to solving problems. The recent pandemic robbed us of the physical support system but has also made us develop the skills in virtual communication.

At the start of my practicum, I wondered how I could make an impact without being physically present in the practicum setting. But as I conclude, I realize I learnt a lot and still had my usual support though virtual but very present. Help was always an email, phone call or Zoom meeting away and surprisingly equally as effective.

Patient satisfaction is considered a proxy for quality of health care. This practicum enlightened me on many aspects of care that is neglected which when considered greatly impacts service delivery. Something as basic as provider introduction and knowledge of service rendered prior gave patients a sense of trust and increased assess to health care and compliance.

My mini "African Union" in N.C.

My mini “African Union” in N.C.

In all, I learned that to make interventions that are sustainable, the voice of the patient must be considered. I am glad that I got to be a part of a team that worked virtually to impact a change in my home country and grateful for the support from my mini  “African Union.”

Janet

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

It feels like just yesterday when I started my practicum and like the saying goes “everything that has a beginning, sure has an end.” I successfully completed my remote practicum on August 10, which also happened to be the first day of class for the Fall semester.

Working at honey suckle tea house.

Working at honey suckle tea house.

My practicum project was aimed at engaging male partners, grandmothers/family members in Lusaka, Zambia to support optimal infant feeding and stimulation of HIV-exposed uninfected infants as well as women’s continued ART adherence. I also participated in secondary analysis of qualitative data obtained from interviews with HIV-positive women and their male partners in Zambia and Malawi.

I am very excited to have worked on a project that is in line with my interest, which is improving the health of women and children with limited access to health care particularly in the areas of HIV/AIDS as well as Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF).

My outputs were counseling materials, training guides and qualitative data summaries. Though I could not make it to Zambia, I am so glad for how much I have learnt about the population, their traditions, beliefs and available community assets. This knowledge helped me to design materials bearing in mind the context of the public health problem as well as being culturally sensitive which would in turn ensure acceptability and sustainability of recommended practices.

I am extremely grateful to UNC Gillings Zambia Hub for this opportunity to broaden my knowledge, develop skills and apply my knowledge on a hands-on real work. I had an amazing preceptor, Dr. Stephanie Martin, who coached me excellently, shared very useful resources and provided constructive feedback on products. I am also grateful for the guidance and encouragement from my faculty mentor, Dr. Sian Curtis. Above all, I am thankful for good health, sound mind and the ability to adapt to change.

This practicum experience has been a great one, which I would not have traded for anything. I hope to eventually travel to Zambia one day!

Below is the new addition to family [I am a new plant mom (fig. 2)…lol] and also currently “plant-sitting” for a friend (fig.3).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Doreen

KEEP PUSHING

It still feels surreal that I have come to the end of my summer practicum. I must confess that I was not sure how my practicum experience was going to be, given the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to these uncertainties, my practicum completion dates had to be moved a couple of times so that I could meet the goals initially set for the practicum and to gain as much knowledge and skills I had planned to learn at the start of the practicum.

Having gone through all these, I must say I feel more empowered than I ever imagined I was. It was an introspective and self-reflective period for me. I remember feeling quite sad that I could not visit family and friends due to the pandemic. I recall feeling so lonely at a time, but I reached out to an inner strength that I never knew I had and I felt much better and much stronger. This goes to prove that indeed, ‘where there is a will, there is a way’. If you persevere, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

Departing New Jersey to Lagos, Nigeria whilst observing physical distancing- “the new normal.”

Departing New Jersey to Lagos, Nigeria whilst observing physical distancing- “the new normal.”

My practicum even though did not go as planned, has been very interesting.  I finally (after much delay) got the opportunity to travel to my home country Nigeria which is the location of my summer practicum. I enjoyed the privilege of working with primary data on child nutrition. I produced a framework for performance monitoring and management for a project that is focused on improving child nutrition in the communities. Even though I couldn’t go out to the communities to put names and faces to the data I worked with, owing to the lockdown necessitated by the pandemic, however, I felt fulfilled knowing that I played a small part in improving nutrition and health status of some vulnerable children. This has strengthened my resolve in learning as much as I can and being the best public health practitioner, I can be. The big lesson for me from this experience is that despite the pressure on the outside, we can draw from our inner strength to stay focused on the goal, adopt new strategies when necessary to make the positive impact we desire to see. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, so let us keep pushing.

Maureen

When Everything Goes Digital

In March, my practicum in Zambia was moved to an online format. I was frustrated and disappointed because I had been so eager to go physically see oncological care in Sub-Saharan Africa. What I didn’t expect was to gain practical skills during such a hands-off internship. This summer I developed a digital dashboard system for a multidisciplinary team that had just transitioned to a virtual format as well. I was originally very frustrated with the world when my plans got altered to start remote work, instead of traveling, but I realized I was not the only one that was adjusting. To make their efforts more efficient in their new virtual state, and to address historical need for technology, I was employed to introduce a new way of communicating between the team, allowing them to share information at a moment’s notice. I soon realized that the whole world would be having to learn this, and use these skills for a bit longer than anticipated.

Through my efforts of developing the digital data management system, I have researched eHealth systems around the world, and I have seen how low and middle-income countries are focused on developing eHealth strategy documents. The purpose of these is to outline the need for building technological capacity and supporting tech education. It is a public statement to the world and the people that the country intends to step into the technological world. Recently Zambia started benefiting from a new undersea high speed internet cable that has now given the internet to millions of people. Much of the population is still rural, but the new connective cable allows Zambia to join countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe that are also connected.

A practicum like mine would not have been possible even a decade ago because of lack of internet, and the whole prospect of shifting the multidisciplinary team to virtual meetings would not have been possible without the development of software like Zoom that has become so prevalent during the pandemic. COVID-19 is waking the world up to the functional uses of the internet in professional settings. All those meetings that could have been emails are now emails, or virtual meetings. I wonder if the in-person meetings, or offices, will make a full recovery. Now looking for employment at the start of the Fall semester, many if not all opportunities are advertised as remote for the foreseeable future, and will probably transition to that mode from now on. Over the past three months, I have learned many things about the virtual world, but the most important, is that it is here to stay.

Katerina

Transitioning from Practicum to Classes Amid the Pandemic

Today marks the first day of classes back at UNC. Selecting which mask I should wear for my first day of class was not the way I imagined starting my second year of graduate school. As I begin the process of adjusting to a primarily virtual semester and put the finishing touches on my practicum deliverables, I have begun to reflect on how I can utilize the lessons I’ve learned working remotely the past few months to engage in meaningful learning in the “classroom” this year.

Working with the Anova Health Institute located in South Africa has both positively impacted and challenged me in ways I could never have anticipated. My practicum pushed me to strengthen my communication skills to better engage in collaborative work despite the thousands of miles between my kitchen table office and my colleagues in Johannesburg. As part of further developing my communication skills, I worked on practicing active listening to absorb as much as I could from what my team was sharing in the short time of a Zoom meeting. Not only do I seek to better integrate this mindset into my personal life, but I also believe it will be a valuable tool as I tackle the challenges of learning in a virtual setting.

Working next to my best friend, Tallulah!

Working next to my best friend, Tallulah!

Many of us likely feel the added pressure of being involved in public health work during this crisis. For me, I am feeling the urgency to equip myself with as many public health tools as I can, making this semester feel more important than ever. The professional and personal development I have gained during my remote practicum experience has helped me to realize how impactful a virtual opportunity can be. Rather than dwelling on what I will miss from being in a traditional classroom, I am reinvigorated by the knowledge that I have started to develop tools this summer to make the most of my public health education. As I wind down from my first day of class and think about what tomorrow’s will bring, I am hopeful that the lessons of collaborative communication and self-care that I began developing during my summer practicum will help me to have my best semester yet.

Hannah

Experiencing life with the power of Zoom

As the end of summer quickly approaches, I have had the opportunity to slow down and reflect on my global health experience. For me and the rest of my cohort, the end of this internship also marked the conclusion of our time at Gillings in the MPH/RD program. Graduation was celebrated over Zoom, which was a bit more bitter than sweet due to no real closure or proper goodbyes. Despite this unexpected ending, I am thankful for the community I found at UNC and am sure many of us will cross paths in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic also drastically changed my plans this summer which had involved traveling to Cebu, Philippines to conduct qualitative research related to infant feeding practices. When travel restrictions went into effect, I had to quickly change my research plans to fit into the new ‘work from home’ structure. My global health experience this summer ended up consisting of regular Zoom meetings with my preceptor, secondary data analysis, and writing a research paper. I was able to utilize data from the Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey which has over 30 years of infant feeding data spanning two generations of mothers and their children living in Cebu, Philippines. With this data, I studied the association of maternal education with breastfeeding practices across the two generations of mother-infant pairs. Although this experience did lack a “hands on” component in another country, I did gain a lot of useful skills that I can take with me into my future career. I was able to learn and improve many skills this summer including evaluating existing literature and putting it into the context of my research project, learning data analysis methods in Stata (a statistical software), communicating data analysis in a research paper format, and preparing the paper for submission for publication in a peer reviewed journal. My global health experience was nothing like I could have imagined, but I leave with many new skills that I am eager to use as I begin my public health career.

A screen shot of my Zoom graduation

A screen shot of my Zoom graduation

– Shannon

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