Finding a Practicum: One Student’s Experience

By Mariko Rasmussen, MPH ’13 in Department of Population and Family Health

I always knew that I wanted to study abroad and gain international public health research and program experience during my time at Mailman. In fact, this in-the-field experience—what’s known as a practicum—is an essential part of getting an MPH. Students choose from all manner of health projects in dozens of countries around the world. There are a lot of options!

Here I am at the Cloisters, thinking about where to go.

The process

My first semester here, I often heard, “Don’t think about the practicum yet!” This was actually somewhat easy, considering my mind was preoccupied with completing five core courses and working part time at Women Deliver. But as soon as I got back from winter break, finding a practicum took priority.

While it’s possible to do your own independent practicum, students like myself without extensive international experience are encouraged to apply for department-sponsored practicum sites. I could also, if need be, consider domestic opportunities.

On January 20, I attended the Population and Family Health department practicum panel and listened to presentations from second-year students from department-sponsored sites such as Dominican Republic, Uganda, and Ghana, and from students who found independent sites.

The presenters suggested we ask ourselves questions like, “Do I prefer to be isolated or surrounded by people,” and, “Do I prefer a structured or looser environment?” They were also honest about how many times things did not go as planned. They arrived to their site to find that the project had changed somehow, like the data they were prepared to analyze hadn’t yet been collected, and they had to throw out their original work plan in favor of something new. The presenters emphasized that each opportunity would have different challenges, but we’d learn a great deal. The theme of the day was to be flexible.

The application

We had until February 15th to submit a resume and fill out the practicum application on SurveyMonkey. The application allowed us to rank our first and second choice of sites, and asked questions such as what our professional objectives are after graduation. I knew I wanted to conduct public health research, focusing on sound data collection and analysis, to gather evidence to improve the scope and quality of reproductive health policies, programs, services, and technologies. I chose two programs in Africa that I thought offered me the best opportunity to do exactly that.

The verdict

I’m going to Uganda! The Student Academic Practicum Program at the Rakai Health Sciences Program (RHSP) provides students with the opportunity to work with a comprehensive HIV education, prevention, and treatment program in a high-risk setting in Africa. RHSP was founded in 1988 and is located in Kalisozo, three hours south of the capital of Kampala. During my 10-week summer practicum, I’ll be completing an original research project under the guidance of local staff. Projects change from year to year, and I just got an email with project descriptions for me to rank in terms of my interest. I’m awaiting word on what project I’ll be matched to. I’m excited to apply my classroom skills in the field!

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