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Flexibility + Creativity = Crisis Resolved

AHS E-News Fall 2020

student intern checking medical records

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the State of Illinois, more than 150 undergraduates were engaged in internships or field experiences required for graduation by the Community Health (CH) and Interdisciplinary Health Sciences (I-Health) degree programs. While some were able to continue working remotely with their sites, others found their placements terminated. Advisors in both programs were challenged with finding workable alternatives that kept students on track toward graduation while providing meaningful experiences.

Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities are popular sites where AHS students seek practical professional experience. I-Health academic advisor Beth Frasca says one of the reasons students lost their field experience placements in the spring is because these institutions had to devote their energies to addressing the pandemic. In developing alternative ways to meet the learning objectives of the field experience, she and teaching assistant professor Kristin DiFilippo focused on making them relevant. “We tried to take as much of a ‘real life’ spin as we could,” she said, “and to educate them about what was currently going on as well as give them an historical perspective.”

To achieve that goal, students were given the option of creating timelines of pandemics past and present, in which they compared and contrasted such things as the health messages generated by health officials and the stigma associated with the pandemics. Students also had the option of creating podcasts on health topics related to their placement site, or conducting in-depth historical analyses of policies, processes, or resources related to the site.

For the fall semester, students have either secured traditional field experiences, albeit virtual in most cases, with organizations in the Urbana-Champaign community or are working in teams of three on project-based guided experiences with the College of Applied Health Sciences’ Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services and the Center on Health, Aging, and Disability. Kristin DiFilippo said the students’ response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Our students have been wonderful in being flexible and patient,” she said. “We’ve had to be creative and I think in the long run, it’s going to make our field experience better.”

Brynn Adamson, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health and CH internship coordinator, shared the view that changes implemented to help students complete internship requirements during the pandemic could have a long-term, positive impact on the way the internship program works. CH students whose internships were terminated in the spring were offered a course alternative, which included intensive training modules focused on relevant public health topics such as coronavirus-related contact tracing.

Although restrictions related to the pandemic stretched beyond the spring semester, many of the 40 students pursuing internships in the summer were able to find off-campus organizations willing to work with them. “It really opened up a lot of opportunities when organizations saw they could work with students remotely,” Dr. Adamson said. “We had students working with organizations in Chicago, Kansas, and California, and the quality of the internships was really good.”

This semester, she introduced another option that further expanded internship opportunities. “Some organizations can’t offer traditional, full-semester internships, but they do have projects that need to be completed,” she said. “This task-based approach gives us flexibility, gives the organizations much-needed help, and gives students the opportunity to gain the practical professional experience they need to prepare for entering the work force themselves.”

Like her colleagues in I-Health, Dr. Adamson thinks the pandemic has served as a springboard for innovation, and a chance to reexamine the existing internship requirement. Students have appreciated the sense of control the various options have given them in a time of uncertainty, and she’s hoping that some of the changes made in response to the coronavirus will endure when that uncertainty is alleviated.