Bridger making a peace sign in front of some large dinosaurs

A positive side-effect of doing a practicum remotely practicum: getting to visit your parent’s new home in Utah (and making some new friends).

In some ways my 2021 practicum summer, like many things in a school year defined by the pandemic, is a lot different what I would have expected before enrolling. Having been unceremoniously removed from my life in Panama at the onset of the pandemic, I had always envisioned my practicum as a chance to dive back into working overseas, forming and learning from international partnerships in community settings. Instead, I’m conducting a practicum entirely via Zoom, working remotely with a public health organization based in Colorado.

However, in other ways, my position has been providing me the exact kind of experiences and challenges I was always hoped for in a practicum. My interest in Public Health and global practice began during four years of service with the Peace Corps in Panama. This form of grassroots development and health education has shaped the way I view and engage in Global Health work, learning and working alongside community-driven programs. However, in partnering with the United Nations Development Programme in the Darien gap, I became interested in developing the skills to identify ways to leverage large-scale resources to support community-driven efforts. My practicum so far has placed me at this nexus of community outreach and institutional power.

I’m interning with Pitkin County Public Health in Colorado, filling a position through a Preventative Health Block Grant seeking to address significant health inequities in their health and community infrastructure exposed by the pandemic. Specifically, the grant and the team I’ve joined of members of three neighboring public health departments and community stakeholders, is intended to improve health equity, especially for the Latinx and immigrant population in the area. As an intern I’ve taken on facilitating the development of deliverables such as a mental health awareness and promotion campaign, resource guides, and internal trainings for county organizations to apply an equity lens towards their services.

There’s a clear equity gap in Pitkin County and the surrounding area. Aspen, the largest town in the area, is a well-known resort community with high cost of living, and a population that more than doubles during the winter ski season. However, there’s a significant population of service and industry workers who support this resort lifestyle, including a large Latinx and immigrant population. Many locals struggle with high cost of living and services in the greater Aspen area, and many live in neighboring counties of Garfield and Eagle—however, the pandemic has helped illuminate the level of existing inequity in many regards, including access to health services and information.

It’s been an interesting challenge gaining contextual knowledge around the Pitkin County area and going through the process of making connections and building relationships all remotely. The virtual format has pushed me well out of my comfort zone, cold-joining lots of Zoom meetings with different agency partners, sending out emails to make connections with individuals, and not ever visiting the spaces I’m attempting to serve. It has struck me as an odd sensation to be discussing programs for a community I haven’t visited since I was 3 years old, but strangely enough, Global Health organizations do that all the time—as such, I’ve taken this challenge as a way to practice combining a community-centered approach to program development within the types of higher up, NGOs and Government agencies I could find myself working in someday after my degree, far removed from the field.  While many of the mediums I’ve been using have been out of my comfort zone, when in doubt I’ve relied on some practices learned the hard way during my time with Peace Corps: 1) ask an endless stream of questions, 2) prioritize relationships over producing results, 3) defer all expertise to my local partners.

Applying these approaches has definitely come into conflict with larger realities of my practicum position at times. For one, there’s simply limited time to share and learn in the punctual and itemized Zoom meetings of a government agency. Secondly, the grant I’m working under has very real deadlines around deliverables and progress. With June about to be over, time limitations have forced relationship building and production to be a simultaneous process. The organizational practices fueled by fiscal infrastructure are something I’ll need to be able to navigate effectively, and I think this practicum is giving me great preparation in that regard.

Running from a T-rex

(Note all of them play nice).

It’s exciting after a year of school to be facilitating the development of materials with the potential for real world impact again. Even though just on Zoom, I’ve enjoyed the early relationships with work and community partners in this position. I’ve also appreciated the opportunity to apply skills acquired in Peace Corps to work with international populations in a domestic space. While so much is different than I would have expected a year ago, an early takeaway for me from my practicum is that core elements of learning exchange and collaborative partnership are universal with work addressing gaps in health equity, regardless of miles traveled or hours zoomed.