Mentors help public health students gain real-world experience

Mentoring can have such a significant impact on academic success, personal development and career guidance, which is why the USF College of Public Health has started a mentoring project that pairs its undergraduate students with public health professionals at the Hillsborough County Department of Health.

This summer, 14 USF students will take part in the Learning through Experience and Academic Partnerships (LEAP), a program funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

In addition to offering mentoring, the LEAP program has the added benefit of allowing the students to take an active role helping the Department serve its medically underserved populations, said Karen Perrin, PhD, MPH, associate professor of public health and director of undergraduate studies at the College of Public Health, is project leader and principal investigator for LEAP.

“This grant allows the undergrad students the opportunity to touch and feel public health up close for a few weeks this summer,” Dr. Perrin said.

“When I sign their time sheets each week, they give me a brief summary of their activities for that week. They are so excited to actually get to do something ‘real’ in a work environment rather than in the classroom. They all say that they like it so much that they would have done it for free.”

The 10-week LEAP program is based on public health core competencies. The goal of the project is to provide mentoring to undergraduate public health students and to serve the medically underserved population of Hillsborough County. The framework of what the students will experience is based on the Ten Essential Public Health Services from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see below), Dr. Perrin said.

Part of the program includes particpating in GIFT (Get Into Fitness Today), a six week nutrition education program. The students gather volunteers to participate in the program, and have weekly meetings with them to discuss nutrition, physical activity, and weight loss and healthy weight maintenance strategies. Pictured here are four community health volunteer students, from left, Terrill Curtis, Katherine Hines, Elisabeth Franzen, and Joanna Reid.

In addition to Dr. Perrin, administrators for the program include: Leslene E. Gordon, RD, PhD, community health director for the Hillsborough County Health Department; Jylmarie Lewis, public health manager within Communicable Diseases division of the Health Department; Dr. Deborah Austin, Communication and Community Outreach Director for Central Hillsborough Healthy Start, and Elisabeth Cross, a master’s student who is the graduate student liaison between USF and the DOH and mentor to the undergraduate students in the project.

After becoming DOH volunteers, 14 COPH undergraduate students will receive mentoring from a DOH representative, as well as oversight from a graduate student mentor. With supervision of registered nurses, health educators, or registered dietitians, the mentees will learn to monitor the health status to identify and solve community health problem and link people to needed personal health services in the community, as well as research new insights and innovative solution to health problems related to chronic disease prevention and promotion of healthy lifestyles within the Community Health Division programs at DOH.

“By working with health statistics and data to complete a community health profile, students will learn to diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community,” Dr. Perrin said.

The students’ final report will include analyses of data from weekly journals, pre- and post-surveys, and a satisfaction survey.
Ten Essential Public Health Services from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

1. Monitor health status to identify and solve community health problems.
2. Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community.
3. Inform, educate, and empower people about health issues.
4. Mobilize community partnerships and action to identify and solve health problems.
5. Develop policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts.
6. Enforce laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety.
7. Link people to needed personal health services and assure the provision of health care when otherwise unavailable.
8. Assure competent public and personal health care workforce.
9. Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services.
10. Research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems.

Story by Sarah A. Worth, USF Health Office of Communications