Experiential learning through a pandemic

As COVID-19 shut down the world, Ahmed Rana was supporting pandemic planning in Alberta.

Hersharon Sandhu - 20 August 2020

As the world mulled over the repercussions of living through a pandemic, master of public health graduate, Ahmed Rana (MPH ‘20), was applying his public health knowledge in real-time to help support pandemic planning in Alberta.

“I did not start my degree thinking that I would end up doing pandemic planning,” said Rana. “I did not enter my practicum with the vision of working in a pandemic setting, but that is the nature of public health. You really have to be prepared for anything.”

Like many School of Public Health graduates, Rana was in the midst of a 14-week practicum placement with Alberta Health Services when the pandemic hit. “The type of work I had initially planned for involved day to day operations [at health care sites] - looking to see where potential efficiencies can be made, where we’re [already] doing fantastically well, and how we can better serve our population.” As the world shut down all around him, Rana needed to quickly pivot, apply his public health knowledge and skills, and adapt to a new work plan. 

With his preceptor, Ellen Elliot, acting site director for Fort Saskatchewan Community Hospital and North East Community Health Centre, and site director for WestView Health Centre, Rana began to get the centres ready for full COVID-19 surge capacity. Where earlier this year Rana was looking forward to rolling out Connect Care, a provincial clinical information system, he now found himself organizing and collaborating with frontline staff. Answering questions like, “If we get a surge of cases in this area, do we have the capacity to put staff here? What equipment will we need? How many more trained staff do we need? How can we go above and beyond what we’re already doing?” 

When asked how his practicum experience was impacted by the pandemic, Rana said that it only enriched it further. “I had professors that would talk about the Public Health Act all the time and how it has the ability to almost shut down the province. And then seeing that come into practice, and being a part of an organization that had such a crucial role in public health and the health of our entire province. It was breathtaking. I’m going to look back at this and it’s going to be one of the most exciting and rewarding pieces of work I’ve ever done.” 

Practicum placement was a critical component of Rana’s public health education. “When I was looking at public health programs, [practicums] were an essential component for me. I see the value of that work experience, of the connections that you made, of applying the knowledge that you learn in classes.” Practicum settings are an invaluable training ground to hone student competencies in public health. It exposes students to “on-the-ground” experiences within resource-constrained settings, challenging them to think and work creatively. 

Though graduates encountered a unique practicum placement this winter term, getting the opportunity to link theory to practice, while learning practice competencies, is invaluable at any time. Moving beyond ethical dilemma discussions in the classroom, experiential learning allows students to put theories into practice and truly understand the impact of their work. They can see just how connected public health is to everything. 

“Public health is in every single one of our lives. It’s in the air we’re breathing - it’s so closely tied to every single person's life,” said Rana. “So to prepare our future public health professionals in a manner that encompasses all of that needs to include experiential learning. It’s critical.” 

Student experiential learning programs play an important role in creating a robust public health fabric across all sectors. Not only do they provide important public health expertise for community partners, they also provide important opportunities for future public health practitioners to develop critical thinking, analysis and advocacy skills within a real-world setting and while serving a population.

Rana understands that better than most. “I grew up in a smaller northern town, so being a part of something outside of our urban centre was something that I really appreciated.” The learning environments in these small communities are beyond theory, beyond coursework, and beyond traditional classroom instruction. “Everything happens in those hospitals, from having a place to sleep to providing long-term care to seniors. Everyone is a part of this community and everyone is needed to keep things running.” 

As Rana joins his peers in virtually crossing the stage at convocation, he looks forward to his bright future in public health. “I will always be attached to community health, uplifting communities, and being a part of that process. It’s something that I’m driven by. Public health is something that is very rooted in me and something that I’m very passionate about.” 

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