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

Category: Tamara

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

A Shift in Priorities and the Rewarding Results

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.

My remote work station would not be complete without a good view of my roommate/houseplant, Steven. Yes, he has a name.

My remote work station would not be complete without a good view of my roommate/houseplant, Steven. Yes, he has a name.

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.