For over 16 years Ruth Wolfe has been helping master of public health (MPH) students gain the skills needed to put their best foot forward after graduation.
As the practicum program director and capping course coordinator with the School of Public Health, one of Wolfe’s primary responsibilities is practicum placement for master of public health students—a mandatory and highly valuable component of the MPH degree.
Wolfe started her career at the University of Alberta in the fall of 2000 as practicum coordinator with the Centre for Health Promotion Studies (CHPS). There, she worked with over 140 organizations to place approximately 167 health promotion students in their field placements from 2001 to 2009.
In 2010, Wolfe became the School-wide practicum coordinator. With this move, her position expanded to include all students in the MPH program.
“The infrastructure we had developed for the field practicum was invaluable when we made the transition to the School in 2006,” says Wolfe. “We were able to integrate this approach across all specializations so that it was a seamless and consistent process for all students and placement hosts.”
Wolfe and her team of two practice coordinators—Erin Pollock and Sharlene Wolbeck Minke—work intensively with students to find their placements once they have finished a full-term of coursework. Students are required to review the MPH core competencies and identify their strengths and areas for growth. From there, students create learning objectives for their practicum based on the areas in which they’d like to grow and, together, the practicum coordinators and the students strive to find a practicum match.
“Some students come into the MPH program knowing exactly where they would like to be placed. Others have no idea,” says Wolfe. “Although we have a list of previous placements, no practicum is the same as the last. The experience is tailored to the student; it is always about the best match.”
The practicum placement is dependent on the student’s learning objectives and specialization. Because of this, opportunities could be anywhere. Practicum hosts could be government, non-government, non-profit, private sector, or academic organizations. They are carried out in a wide range of locations in Edmonton, across Alberta and Canada, and beyond. The field placement must take place with a relevant organization that addresses public health issues.
“We encourage students to remember that public health is not just a public health unit—it is cross sectoral,” says Wolfe. “There is public health happening in agriculture, human services, disaster management or environment, and that’s just the beginning. It is pivotal to get students to think outside the box.”
Students learn everything from office etiquette or how to send a professional email, to policy analysis or program evaluation. There is also a strong focus on developing transferable skills. In a field that is constantly evolving and changing, a diverse and flexible skillset is highly valued in public health. Additionally, students begin to understand the complexities of real-life work settings and how to navigate and manage internal dynamics. These things are not always covered in the classroom.
“The practicum is important because it is an opportunity to develop skills and knowledge outside the walls of academia,” explains Wolfe. “Our students come from a wide range of backgrounds; some have always been students. If you have never had the opportunity to be in a professional work setting, it’s a critically important transition.”
And the benefits are not just exclusive to students.
“The placements are mutually beneficial for the students and the host organizations,” says Wolfe.
Hosts have told Wolfe that having students in their workplace can be refreshing for the organization. Students bring an enthusiastic perspective, a new lens and fresh ideas to ordinary tasks and processes. Students are encouraged to ask their preceptors and hosts, ‘Why?’ which may cause the organization to pause and rethink the way it is doing things. Additionally, having a student provides forward thinking hosts the opportunity to train and develop future workers in a new way as the field changes.
And as for Wolfe and her team? There are benefits for them, too.
“There is a lot of invisible work in this job, such as attending to relationship management, creating legal agreements or addressing unforeseen issues,” reflects Wolfe. “But it’s challenging and ever changing, and allows me to straddle the worlds of academia and the community. It is extremely rewarding to be part of the student experience and be able to see a light turn on for a student.”
“Most importantly, we see the growth and development of our students throughout their placements. The goal is to have a positive experience, but positive or negative, there are still learning outcomes and our students become better for it.”