Environmental public health tracking programs benefit from student interns in a wide variety of program areas, including epidemiology, bio-statistics, health communication, and health education. Interns are typically completing a capstone or practicum requirement or gaining experience for their own professional development. While both practicums and capstones are part of MPH program requirements, they differ slightly. A practicum is meant to provide practical experience, while a capstone culminates in a project or research paper. Many times, a student bases their capstone project on practicum activities. Programs should consider what type of intern best suits their needs before publicizing the opening.
Student Interns Impact Tracking Programs
Environmental public health tracking (Tracking) programs around the country are collecting and standardizing data focusing on environmental indicators and health outcomes. The ability to understand the data that is collected and how it can be used to build capacity and capabilities within state and local health departments is something that many graduate students don’t have direct access to. By utilizing students, or interns, Tracking programs can not only boost their own capacity, they can also provide valuable training and guidance for young professionals about to enter the workforce.
Whether you have are looking for your first intern or are looking to start a regular intern program, the information provided below should help you get started.
Interns can be recruited several different ways. Since internships are frequently a requirement for graduate school programs, students may contact health departments enquiring about available opportunities. In this instance staff members can work with students to determine if the program is a good fit. Alternatively, departments can contact local universities' public or environmental health programs. Some schools have online databases for students where internships, both paid and unpaid, are posted regularly. Oftentimes organizations can submit internship opportunities to these job boards. Additionally, schools may have internship coordinators who can connect students with opportunities that fit their interests. Departments should reach out to schools and make connections with internship coordinators, especially if they have a specific requirement for an intern or will regularly have internship opportunities available. Interns can also be placed through the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) or Area Health Education Centers (AHEC). Departments should contact representatives from these organizations (local chapters if possible) to find out more information. The National Environmental Public Health Internship Program (NEPHIP), administered through NEHA, matches students and health departments using funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Students must be enrolled in a National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC) accredited environmental health academic program to apply. Health departments must also apply to be host sites through the program. Interns can be hired through Limited Term Employment (LTE) programs. Some more developed programs send out formal applications and conduct interviews to ensure that the intern is a good fit in the department. The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) and several other organizations run the Applied Epidemiology Fellowship. The CDC runs a program called the Public Health Associate Program. Both opportunities fund recent graduates to work at local or state health departments or nonprofit organizations for two years, the former with a focus on epidemiology. These programs allow for fellows to engage in long term projects and more fully integrate into the program staff. Departments can apply to be host sites to obtain fellows. Establishing relationship with any or all these organizations will help departments find interns with matching skillsets and interests.
The interview and application process depend largely on the internship program. More developed or funded programs may send out formal applications and conduct interviews. Applications can be disseminated through any of the channels described above. Interviews can also be useful in less developed programs to measure student interest and how he or she would fit into the department. A sample application is included in the resources section at the end of this document. Funded programs may also bring interns on under an LTE (limited term employment) contract. This can be beneficial as it allows students to go through the full on-boarding process and become more integrated into the department, and therefore experience first-hand what it is like working in environmental public health programs.
In addition to the organizational application process, many schools require that students complete a practicum or capstone proposals. The proposals link activities completed during the practicum or capstone back to the school requirements. Generally these need to be completed by the student and signed by the person supervising the students work.
The most successful internship programs match student interests and experience with program needs. The skills required for the internship and areas in which the student hopes to grow should also be considered. At the beginning of an internship, student requirements (capstone and practicum) should be reviewed, and taken into consideration while forming the workplan. The workplan should detail project timelines, goals, and activities that the student is expected to work on during their internship. Having a clearly defined workplan is the most important element of a successful internship.
At the most basic level, a workspace, including a computer, access to an email account, and a phone, should be provided for interns. At the beginning of the program, interns should also be briefed on the department layout, computer network, parking, and given a tour to become familiar with the building and meet staff. This will help the student connect with staff members and feel more at ease within the department. Other preparatory steps may depend on the program area. For instance, interns working in epidemiology or mapping projects may need access to software such as SAS and GIS. Interns working in communications might benefit from websites, guidebooks, or blogs. Funded internships programs or interns brought on as LTEs may entail official onboarding procedures.
Integration into the department or project staff is also critical to the success of an internship. Students should be exposed to and receive feedback from a wide variety of staff, not solely their supervisor. This will make students aware of a wide variety of program areas and help them narrow their own interests. Funded internship programs can further this effort by onboarding interns like normal employees. More developed programs that place an emphasis on student growth may provide a mentor within the organization who is separate from the intern's supervisor. Mentors help interns feel more comfortable and gives them an alternative space for questions, general discussions, and networking. Since building a professional network is an important part of most internships, providing opportunities to students to connect with professionals both inside and outside the health department is valuable to the student and the success of their projects. Students can also connect with other interns to foster peer networking opportunities, and if the department offers professional development trainings and/or resources, interns should be included to further their own individual experience and further integrate them into the team.
Interns completing a practicum or capstone through graduate school usually have requirements they need to fulfill. Requirements may include final reports, presentations, and evaluations. These requirements should be communicated at the start of the internship and included in any workplans that are developed. Supervisors may need to fill out periodic performance reviews, hold check in meetings with students, and write an evaluation after the internship. If students need to present their findings at the end of the program, supervisors should arrange an opportunity for them to do so.
During the school year interns usually commit between 10 and 20 hours a week. In the summer interns may commit up to 40 hours a week, especially if the internship is paid. Some capstone or practicums have requirements of 240 hours total. Interns working on specific projects should focus most of their time in that area, although students may also benefit from exploring other program areas. Interns working more generally in environmental health programs should split up their time evenly between different projects.
Work activities vary greatly depending on the individual. Interns may have a few staff meetings or calls throughout the day, but most of their time will be spent working on projects. Students working in epidemiology might spend good portions of their day working on data analysis using GIS or SAS, while those in health education or communications might conduct research and draft resources. Additionally, interns can attend staff and department meetings to hear about activities and projects in other programs. Students can also present at these meetings to hear feedback on their projects from a wider audience.
Long term projects vary based on the type of internship and the department in which the intern is working. Examples of projects include creating lesson plans and a curriculum for grantee trainings, drafting a birth-defects report, and a report and presentation on home energy assistance programs. Oftentimes the internship culminates in a final report or presentation that can be used in partner meetings or within the department. The most successful internship programs require interns to create a workplan for their projects to map out their long-term goals, as well as a timeline and daily activities. This ensures that students stay on track and have a tangible work project at the end of the internship.
Part of the internship process is learning about the field and making connections with staff and other professionals. Interns should also regularly attend staff or department meeting where they can get staff feedback on projects and learn about potential areas for collaboration. If projects overlap, interns may have the opportunity to work in a variety of subject areas. This will allow interns to learn more about different project areas and gain skills outside of their internship concentration. While the intern’s core projects are priority, allowing students to explore their interests and collaborate often leads to more successful internships.
Interns are generally expected to have some prior coursework relevant to their program. For instance, interns working in epidemiology should have already completed several classes in this area. Interns working in health education or communication are more adaptable as there aren’t specific requirements. Skills in SAS or GIS are may helpful depending on the program area, although some interns can teach themselves these programs throughout the course of the internship. Interns may gain skills in evaluation, quality improvement, strategic planning, and governmental writing. More generally, interns learn how public health systems and large departments function.
Creating an open communication system where interns can receive feedback and ask questions easily is crucial to the success of the internship. Supervisors should ensure that they have time in their schedule to regularly meet with interns. This time should be used to provide background relevant to their project, discuss project goals, activities, and any difficulties, or questions they may have. Additionally, email should be used for daily communication and to reinforce guidance and project goals.
Students fulfilling a capstone or practicum may be required to complete a more in-depth progress review mid-way through the internship and at its conclusion. Relevant staff can also be sources of feedback for interns’ projects.
If departments are unable to offer funded internship programs, there are several other opportunities available for students. Many colleges offer internship stipends that cover housing, food, and transportation for students participating in unpaid internships. Students can also apply for scholarships from foundations related to public health or from organizations representing first generation students, minority students, or other criteria. Departments can apply to be host sites through AHECs, located in each state. AHECs provide $2,000 of funding for each student intern. In addition, NEHA partners with the CDC on the NEPHIP program, which matches up a paid student intern (both undergraduate and graduate students) with local health departments. Both the CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellowship and CDC PHAP program pay fellows for the full two years they will be working at the host site.