Inaugural practicum drawing interest from community partners and students

The inaugural practicum being offered by York University’s School of Health Policy & Management in the Faculty of Health, which was offered in the Winter term, has received rave reviews from both students and their community partners.

Enrolment for the inaugural Health Policy, Management & Informatics (HPMI) Practicum, a fourth-year course for HPMI honours students with a grade-point average of B+ or better, quickly filled to capacity during the Winter term, with 15 students taking part. Despite the high standards for admission, numerous students have registered their interest to learn more about future offerings of the practicum.

“It’s a brand-new venture,” said Paola Calderon-Valdivia, an experiential education co-ordinator for the Faculty of Health, who worked with Ellen Schraa, an associate professor in the Faculty of Health, to make the practicum a reality.

More than a year in development, Schraa wrote the initial proposal for the course. Following its approval, Calderon-Valdivia and Schraa quickly got to work sourcing community organizations interested in having students work for them (while under supervision by a fieldwork coordinator).

Ellen Schraa (centre) talks with students who took part in the School of Health Policy & Management's inaugural fourth-year community practicum

Schraa’s experience with community-engaged learning served their efforts well. In her advanced seminar, Applied Research Approaches in Health Studies, Schraa’s students have worked collaboratively with Toronto Grace Health Centre in doing data collection and analysis. The CEO was eager to sign on as one of the first community partners in the new practicum. Students who were registered for the course also spread the word to volunteer organizations they knew and those organizations reached out to Schraa. Both Schraa and Calderon-Valdivia contacted other organizations they were familiar with in the health care field. As a result, they ended up having more interested community partners than students enrolled in the practicum.

Given the high bar for admission and the fact that interested students had to submit a CV, complete an in-depth application and undergo an interview that gives an indication of their interests, there was a real-world application to the process of securing a practicum partner. Students' confidence level and how they presented themselves, fed into the process of matching them with a community partner.

“We wanted them to be able to adapt well,” said Calderon-Valdivia, “especially since the community partners are making a substantial commitment of time and resources in support of the students. Students are also taking on a big responsibility.”

At the start of the practicum, the students spent a week in the classroom, working on preparing the required learning contract that set out their goals for their experience. They also learned what is required of them in a professional setting. Once they completed this component of the practicum, it was off to spend 10 weeks or a minimum of 150 hours in the field. During the Winter term, in addition to Toronto Grace Health Centre, the partner organizations in the practicum included the Canadian Mental Health Association of York Region, the Black Creek Community Health Centre and Women’s College Hospital, to name just a few.

To communicate with professionals in quality improvement on the first day of your practicum is the best experience and exciting, one of the students told Schraa.

On the job, the students engaged in such diverse tasks as policy review and writing related to accreditation and working on data collection and analysis for organizational and system implementation and quality improvement. Throughout the term, they completed written reflections on their experiences and worked on a poster for presentation to classmates and faculty.

“In my experience, many students express a concern about not knowing what their degree gives them and what they can do with their learning, which is why a practicum is so important,” said Schraa. “It shows them the linkages – how policy and management interact, for example – and, at the midpoint evaluations, they say they now understand the interrelationship between their coursework and how it relates in the working world.”

Equally valuable, says Calderon-Valdivia, are the soft skills they are learning on the job. “They learn the theoretical and technical skills in the classroom, but here they learn the transferable skills that really matter, such as problem solving, adaptability and confidence,” she said. “They are also able to network with people who might open doors for them later and gain some valuable experience to add to their resumes.”

Community partners appear to be delighted by the results.

“It has been a pleasure hosting the students from York’s Health Policy & Management Program,” said Michelle Westin, senior policy analyst with the Black Creek Community Centre, where two students did their practicums. “They bring expertise, great theoretical knowledge and an enthusiasm to their practicum. They got hands-on experience working in a community health centre and were able to apply what they learned in class on the ground.”

The students, added Westin, worked on a project to identify and analyze the socio-demographic needs of the centre’s clients. The learning and recommendations, she said, will help centre staff plan more effective and impactful services for its community.

Schraa and Calderon-Valdivia said they are proud to have created an opportunity for students in the School of Health Policy & Management to apply what they have learned in a real-world setting.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus

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