Public health during a pandemic
Last January, 20 Illinois State seniors headed into the field to serve as interns at hospitals, public health departments, clinics, and schools, just as a pandemic began spreading across the world.
After spring break Joy Parker ’20 learned that she would not be returning to her internship at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Instead, she transitioned to working remotely. Some of her plans for public health projects at schools and food pantries were lost with the onset of restrictions implemented in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“COVID-19 encroached on the technical side of things, but I learned to roll with the punches,” Parker said. “The pandemic took me in a direction I probably wouldn’t have gone. It matured me and changed my outlook.”
Dr. Jacqueline Lanier leads the health promotion and education program in the Department of Health Sciences. Lanier also coordinates the program’s professional practice internships, which serve as a senior capstone to the major. Founded as a health education program in the early 1980s by the late Distinguished Professor Emerita Dr. Ann E. Nolte, the public health program has a history of community engagement.
“Our program, which has been around for decades, prepares students to assess individual and community health needs, deliver programs, analyze data, advocate for health policies, write grants, educate the public, and more,” said Lanier, who worked in public health before coming to Illinois State in 2013.
The program-ending internship helps students serve different communities while meeting new people and building professional networks just before they graduate and look for a job. They also learn communication, teamwork, and other transferable skills they can use throughout their careers.
“This experience provides a real-life exposure opportunity to practice the knowledge and skills that they have learned in school,” Lanier said. “They usually learn about themselves as a person and as a professional. And, some get a job offer.”
Out in the field, the interns found themselves pursuing this important and culminating experience to their educations as the big- gest health crisis of the last 100 years gained momentum. Like everyone else, the students were forced to adjust to a new normal.
The coronavirus pandemic has shined a spotlight on the public health profession. It was on Lanier’s and her students’ minds well ahead of many across the country.
“I was teaching epidemiology in the spring, which was really timely, so coronavirus was on our radar back in January,” Lanier said. “We were talking about it because that’s what we do, but no way did I think it was going to get like this.”
Lanier said the curriculum stresses the importance of steering the public to credible resources. She said it’s frustrating and dangerous to see misinformation getting out to people.
“As health educators it’s our job to provide accurate, evidence-based information,” she said.
Sidney Saylor ’20 did just that as a prevention specialist at Project Oz in Bloomington.
“I taught drug and alcohol prevention to seventh graders,” Saylor said. “I was able to enhance my teaching skills during my internship, which I will continue to sharpen in my new job.”
In July Saylor began work as a community educator at a nonprofit called Safe Journeys in Streator. She educates clients about sexual assault and domestic violence. She also spent part of last summer after being activated by the National Guard, helping to provide coronavirus tests in Chicago.
Saylor, a Mendota native, chose Project Oz for her internship because she had worked with the organization on a previous project and felt the culture and environment there fit what she was looking for.
“I also knew that teaching was not my strongest skill, but something I really wanted to improve,” she said. “I knew this positive and uplifting staff would provide the perfect environment for me to improve my teaching skills.”
She taught five-week lessons with two lessons per week for a total of 10 lessons. She also did some prevention first online training and helped with peer prevention clubs at local high schools.
The internship ended prematurely in mid-April. Not completing all the lesson plans for her class was understandably disappointing.
“I did, however, get to help in the process of creating the e-learning lesson plans for kids,” she said. “These were used in the place of classroom learning, and it felt good knowing my work would be used in the future.”
Saylor tried to make the most of the situation.
“The pandemic made me extremely resilient even though it took many experiences away from me,” she said. “But with the help of my boyfriend and family, I was able to get through it. I know that I have come back a stronger, more flexible person.”
Parker also served children in her internship, but in a different forum: Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Healthy Communities department.
“Our goal in Healthy Communities is to build partnerships outside the walls of the building,” said Parker, a native of Chicago. “We work to address economic issues, environmental issues, and social issues in the different communities around the Chicago area.”
Parker had the opportunity to participate in many projects, including supporting Lurie Children’s collaborations with West Side United, a program designed to bridge the life expectancy gap in various communities and build partnerships to improve neighborhood health. The program has made an impact in Chicago by helping support the tracking of COVID-19 across the city using its metrics database.
After graduating in May, Parker began a fellowship at Northwestern University Hospital that is tailored for students taking a gap year before starting graduate school. Parker is researching health equity as it relates to cancer, then plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health.
“I know I want to be a health advocate for people living a healthy lifestyle and consuming a better diet,” Parker said.
“There’s so many ways I can be that person for somebody. But being a resource for people, that’s a special feeling for me.”
Public health has been in the spotlight since the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the fact that this sector has been historically underfunded and under-resourced has gotten more attention. The crisis has also pointed to gaps in the health systems.
“It’s brought light to public health when a lot of people didn’t understand what we do,” Lanier said. “A lot of what we do is prevention, so our work is kind of silent and in the background. This has shown how important the work is, and I’m proud of everything that our public health professionals have been doing.”