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Creativity, collaboration and grit

CPHHS internships in the time of COVID-19

Female student in an orange jacket picking up a COVID test kit
Undergraduate public health student Laura De la Torre

Hands-on experiences such as internships are key to students’ learning. But what happens when much of the work force is working from home? How can you ensure students’ safety and help them get meaningful experiences without in-person engagement? What does it mean for students nearing graduation?

College internship coordinators asked themselves these questions and many more this spring, quickly switching gears to identify alternatives once it became clear traditional internships wouldn’t be possible.

Although challenges remain, the good news is that although some internships were cancelled, the majority of students transitioned to an online or alternative experience. Every student who needed an internship to graduate has been able to work toward their needed credit.

“This situation demonstrated teamwork and how our college comes together to work through challenges,” says Karen Elliott, public health undergraduate internship coordinator. “I am incredibly impressed with how students have been able to adapt and make a difficult situation a tremendous learning experience, either through remote internships or substitution courses. Students have been very professional, positive and inspiring in adapting for spring term.”

Public health experiences survive, thrive

For some students, the situation allowed for unique opportunities. Undergraduate public health student Laura De la Torre, who was interning with Aslan Noakes, MPH ’15, at Empower Haiti Together on a hypertension program, transitioned her internship to become part of the TRACE-COVID-19 research study. Laura says she’s grateful for the opportunity and that as a result, she’s interested in earning a Master of Public Health.

“I am working with an amazing team with several years of experience in the health field, and I am learning how to manage a team on and off the field,” Laura says. “I have learned about different public health career paths that I might be interested in, and I learn daily facts about the pandemic and try to stay up-to-date on all the new data.

“Internships are not only a way to get hands-on experience on the field, but they can also help you explore the career path. Having an internship helps you learn from others, build connections and your resume.” 

Public health major Laura Seager had secured an internship with Lincoln County Health and Human Services and was able to make all of her projects remote with her preceptor. They arranged remote meetings and check-in times, and Laura has been able to get a meaningful experience and complete her projects off site. 

Another public health major, Alexis Valadez, completed the second half of her internship at Oregon State Student Health Services. She and her preceptor converted all meetings online, and through weekly check-ins, Alexis has been able to lead collaborative efforts between OSU Wellness Agents and the Native American Longhouse in a remote capacity. 

MPH internship coordinator Tonya Johnson, who began her role at the start of the pandemic, says all MPH students who planned a spring internship are engaged in remote applied practice experiences, most with modifications to their original plan.

“That is incredible to me, and speaks to the caliber of our students and MPH program, as well as the true commitment of our community partners,” Tonya says.

Still, the challenge isn’t over. It is more difficult to find and secure opportunities for summer, and perhaps beyond, Tonya says, adding that several sites have cancelled internships for the summer, and some through 2020. “We are continuing to work together with students, sites and administration to find solutions and opportunities for each of our students.”

Dietetic students “rock”

For the required dietetic internship, faculty converted more than 150 hours per intern into remote projects so that students could graduate on time. Six interns conducted Zoom nutrition counseling sessions for 66 faculty/staff/alumni, which totaled 88 sessions over four weeks. Students also completed various remote projects from preceptors across the Willamette Valley.  

“Our students rocked, honestly,” says Michelle Bump, director of the didactic program in dietetics. “They were flexible, patient and understanding. They volunteered to take on administrative tasks, set up regular Zoom calls to check in with their peers, and supported each other both mentally and academically. 

“In the end, we were able to get students through earlier than planned. And since dietitians are ‘essential workers,’ they will be able to take the RD exam in the near future and join the health care workforce this summer.”

Behind the scenes, Michelle and Associate Professor Mary Cluskey, dietetics internship director, took on more of the role of preceptor and also adapted instruction in light of COVID-19. They researched proper sanitizers for foodservice operations and provided instructions for using them, created disaster menus to use in the event of surges, and projected how many cases of various disaster menu items to purchase for increased feeding needs.

Both are anticipating the need for a similar approach for graduate interns who will start in late June, because it’s not likely students will be able to start rotations until late summer. They then need to begin planning for a new class of undergraduate interns this fall.

High-touch goes high-tech for HDFS students

For CPHHS students, human interaction is critical, and this is particularly true for students in the human services option of the human development and family sciences (HDFS) program.

Internship Coordinator Tasha Galardi says that although some students found alternative placements, many students lost their internships as a result of the pandemic, and she found it challenging to identify remote tasks.

“While most of my students who were able to continue with their internships are thankful that they have been given an opportunity to do some sort of human work, for most of them it is a significant loss to be denied the opportunity to interact with clients in person – or even at all,” she says.

“Some students are interacting with agency or program clients through electronic formats, but not all are getting person-to-person interaction this term. Students who are planning to graduate this year, and were depending on the experience of an internship to prepare them for the job market – or to improve a graduate school application – have been particularly disappointed.

“On a positive note, some students have been able to work with clients in creative ways, using technology, that provides a unique opportunity to practice their human service skills. I have been especially thankful for the site supervisors who have put in the effort to support students with remote internship opportunities, because that surely created more work for them.” 

Kinesiology faculty find creative alternatives for connection

Similar to HDFS, kinesiology students studying pre-therapy and allied health engage in hands-on internships, often with health care providers such as physical and occupational therapists, nurses and others. Due to the pandemic, every provider closed its clinics for in-person practicums, affecting 31 students.

In lieu of traditional clinical settings for student learning, internship coordinator Emily Norcross found an alternative. She and a handful of preceptors created a series of seminars for students to attend with these local clinicians to provide at least some of the mentoring they would receive when they get to work face to face. 

She also built a list of free, online trainings and webinars for students to challenge them with clinical learning. One student is working remotely with his clinical preceptor on updating a policies and procedures handbook, and another is working with the TRACE-COVID-19 public health project to get hands-on learning in the field. 

“The students in my courses are rock stars and are immersing themselves in the opportunities that we have available,” Emily says. “They have smoothly transitioned to this current offering, and I’m excited to see how doing more independent learning and self-directed work will impact the direction they go in the future.”

Slade Thackeray also coordinates experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate kinesiology students and had to get creative to meet students’ needs. About80 of his students were interested in internships for spring term, and although some decided to postpone their experience and more than a dozen retained a version of their internship remotely, 50 students looked to Slade for a solution.

“We worked out interesting ways to make this happen,” says Slade, who, unlike other internship coordinators was able to count students’ experience in service or job shadowing as credit. Those without service experience enrolled in Slade’s course “Advanced Industry Awareness,” with two tracks – one for students who aren’t sure what they want to do with their degree, and a second for students who do. The former interviewed professionals in their field, while the latter focused building their own business.

“Students are doing pretty well overall,” Slade says. “I think what’s interesting is that as much as our students are the ‘tech generation,’ I have heard multiple times that ‘this isn’t my thing. They’re constantly on their phones, but this isn’t how they all want to learn. It’s been a learning experience for everyone to connect this way and find new and different ways of learning.”

For summer, Slade is creating a service learning course, where students will explore elements of servant leadership, common humanity, self-compassion and self-advocacy. The class will remotely partner with local Shangri-La, a nonprofit human services organization serving people with disabilities and disadvantaged families, to “help with projects and lift them up.”

Inspired action and collaboration meets the challenge

For other kinesiology students in master’s degree programs, particularly students in physical education/ teacher education and athletic training, internships proved trickier, but not impossible.

With the closure of schools, Clinical Associate Professor Heidi Wegis says the Teacher and Standards Practices Commission adjusted the typical requirements for student teaching to provide alternative culminating experiences that minimized the dependence on school settings.

“Our teacher candidates were expected to work face-to-face in their school placement spring term,” Heidi says, “but instead have been working to meet licensure requirements designated by the state through a remotely delivered course. 

“Our initial licensure candidates have remained enrolled in practicum coursework and have been working with OSU instructors and supervisors to develop a work sample that provides evidence that meet the benchmarks required for us to recommend licensure in June.” 

Athletic training students benefited from the quick thinking of Associate Professor Sam Johnson and AT Program Director Kim Hannigan, who first sought the support of athletic trainers at both Oregon State University and Western Oregon University in serving as preceptors.

“The overwhelming response was they would do whatever they could to help,” Kim says. “Preceptors have come up with innovative ideas and projects for the students and are regularly meeting with them via Zoom – all in an effort to ensure that students are gaining experiences and moving forward with their degrees.

“Heather Elkinton, an OSU softball athletic trainer, created and is facilitating a networking seminar each week via Zoom for students. She invited athletic trainers from around the country to participate on a specific week highlighting a particular setting for athletic trainers, leadership opportunities in athletic training, and business ownership to name a few. The students dress professionally for the meeting and take turns asking questions to professionals. Katie Homan, an OSU women’s soccer athletic trainer, is facilitating weekly journal club meetings for the athletic training staff and many of the students.” 

College athletic training faculty also held research seminars via Zoom that they opened up to athletic training programs in District 10, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. They’ve also created weekly clinical scenarios highlighting a specific injury for the students and preceptors to discuss.

“It has been wonderful to see the collaboration across institutions during this time,” Kim says. “It has been a tremendous group effort, and we feel fortunate and humbled by the amazing response.”

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