Practicum Profile: Lauren Bailey’s Population Services International Internship

When Lauren Bailey asked a fellow student about volunteer possibilities in the water and sanitation (WASH) sector and learned that Population Services International (PSI) had an opening, she was quick to follow up on the suggestion. “I had heard about PSI in a couple of different classes, and I knew that they have a great reputation for reaching the most at-risk populations and doing effective marketing and communication,” Lauren explains. “I wanted to learn more about how they work.” PSI is a global health organization that works to improve health in the developing world by addressing HIV/AIDS, family planning, and maternal and child health.

Lauren arranged a meeting with Katharine McHugh, WASH Technical Advisor in PSI’s Child Survival Department, and they created an internship plan that could fulfill Laruen’s practicum requirement.  To help PSI field workers monitor whether communities are using the water-quality interventions PSI promotes, she researched various water-quality tests and compiled a water-quality toolkit.  

“I’d been learning in class about the importance of program evaluation, and PSI was interested in doing more monitoring to see if households were using the interventions PSI was promoting – and using them effectively,” Lauren explains. PSI will generally promote the use of chlorine tablets or other chlorine product for household water disinfection; the specifics vary depending on local conditions. Improving access to clean water can slash rates of diarrheal disease, one of the top five killers of children under five in the developing world, but households must use the clean-water interventions consistently and correctly in order for them to be effective.

Perspective from the Ground

To ensure that her toolkit would be useful to PSI field workers, Lauren needed to get a sense of how they operate. McHugh connected her to the program director and a field worker in South Sudan, where PSI is working to integrate WASH into their operations, and Lauren got their perspectives over a series of Skype calls.

“Talking to people who were actually doing the work on the ground really helped me understand the feasibility of different water-quality testing approaches,” Lauren says. “Something that seems so easy and simple, like doing a quick water test, can be a challenge for field workers who already have so many items to cover when they visit households doing quarterly assessments. We realized we had to make it very simple, and also convey to the field workers why it’s important.”

After discussions with PSI staff and extensive research into available water-quality tests, Lauren created a toolkit that explains the importance of water-quality monitoring, answers frequently asked questions, and provides details on the various tests that are available, including the kinds of results they give, their costs, and ease of use.

“Writing concisely and presenting information in a way that will get your point across to target audiences are skills I’ve been developing during my MPH program, and this was a great opportunity to practice those skills,” Lauren explains. “It was great to get feedback on my toolkit draft from program staff. They told me field workers don’t have time to read a five-page document, and helped me identify the most important points to communicate.”

Experiencing an International Organization

Working out of PSI’s Washington, DC headquarters also gave Lauren a close-up look at how an international organization runs programs in multiple developing countries. She enjoyed attending the brown-bag lunch discussions PSI holds, and through conversations with staff involved with using mobile phones and other technologies in WASH, learned about how PSI is tailoring these “mHealth” approaches to different local circumstances.

The internship also helped Lauren think about career goals. “I came into the MPH program thinking I'd be pursuing a job based overseas, but working at PSI helped me see that the best job for me might be one that allows me to travel but is still based in the US,” Lauren says. “In global health, field workers are so dedicated, and it’s a lifestyle more than just the job. I don’t know if I’d be able to commit to a lifestyle that keeps me so far away from my family.” Her experience at PSI, and her current internship with WASH Advocates – a position she pursued to get a look at a different type of organization – are giving Lauren a sense of what kinds of US-based positions are available in global health.

For students considering practicum experiences at international organizations, Lauren advises students to be aware of their preceptors’ and colleagues’ travel schedules, which can add complexity to practicum planning. “If you need your preceptor to do something for you in the online practicum system, make sure you know if she’s planning a trip and might have limited internet access,” Lauren advises. “And don’t be afraid to keep asking for it – these are busy professionals, and they’ll always have a lot going on.” Lauren also suggests that students set interim deadlines for themselves for project drafts or components, rather than just aiming to complete a big project like a toolkit by the end of the semester.

Lauren would enthusiastically recommend McHugh as a preceptor for other MPH students. “She knows a lot about WASH, is energetic, has a great network and lots of resources. Despite her busy schedule, she was always available to answer my questions and give me advice, and if she was in another country, we’d Skype.” McHugh and PSI were also accommodating of Lauren’s need to fit her 120 practicum hours into her busy schedule, which included a full course load, working at the library, and activities with the Public Health Student Association (of which Lauren is now president). “I had a very busy semester, but it was worth it,” she says. “Working at PSI was a terrific experience, and gave me a much better sense of the kind of work I might pursue after graduation.”