Each summer, public health students abandon the classroom and enter the world of business, health, law or politics to blend practical experience with their textbook studies. Summer internships may take them down Interstate 95 to a health care firm in Norwalk, Conn., or to Washington, Geneva or China to work at federal or international agencies. Last summer, 74 students worked on projects at home and abroad.
One organized a database for a study of dementia among older Latino residents in California. Another wrote summaries of information on reproductive health for the World Health Organization in Geneva. A third student created financial models for health care companies at an investment banking firm on Wall Street.
“The internships allow students to gain practical experience and get an idea of balancing theory and practice. It makes their studies come alive,” said Christy Bergheim, director of the EPH Office of Career Services, which helps place students in the program. “It is a transforming experience. They really come back professionals.” Students must complete their internships between the first and second years of the two-year M.P.H. program. Students research their internships independently, then discuss their plans with an adviser, who must approve them.
Brooke Courtney worked for the Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco, one of about 50 public health organizations working for passage of tobacco legislation in Washington. Her job was to develop fact sheets, inform Senate staffers about issues and keep members of the Latino council up-to-date on developments on Capitol Hill. “It was an incredible experience,” said Courtney, whose concentration is in health policy and international health. “It gave me a really good understanding of the policy process, how law-making works, and how interest groups affect policy.”
Tobacco was also the topic for Sue Lin Yee, who went to China, where a third of the world’s cigarettes are smoked. She studied anti-tobacco campaigns in China and assessed the attitudes of public health workers toward smoking. “Not all people in health were non-smokers,” Yee notes. Nevertheless, she found that health workers, as well as the general public, considered smoking a serious problem. She surveyed doctors, nurses and other health professionals, and found a majority preferred prevention programs aimed at adolescents over cessation programs for current smokers. They also favored student-generated smoking awareness pamphlets rather than after-school programs.
“I think the most important thing I learned from the internship was how to deal with the unexpected when working in a foreign environment,” Yee said. “Often we go into the field with great expectations and very specific objectives, but we later discover that, for whatever reasons, we cannot meet our goals. Then it’s important to keep trying and to be firm, but if this fails, try to make the most out of the situation and make the appropriate changes in future research.”
That was also the lesson for Mindy Perilla, who worked on several projects in China. One took her to Inner Mongolia where she investigated neonatal tetanus, a disease that can be prevented by hygienic birthing methods and immunization of prospective mothers. Perilla found her internship particularly challenging because she speaks no Chinese. “This is what international work is really like,” her preceptor told her when they discussed the frustrations of research. “It’s easy to overlook the impact that realities of life, resources, communication and culture can have when planning a project, even when doing so with experienced individuals ‘in-country,’ ” Perilla said. “Expectations and outcomes can be quite different.”