Monthly Archives: May 2014

Our Stellar Students: Sharmila Sandirasegarane, Biobehavioral Health

Sharmila Sandirasegarane
Summer Abroad HHD Blog
May 30, 2014

Major: Biobehavioral Health
Minors: Global Health and Spanish
Hometown: Hershey, PA
Extracurricular Activities: Biobehavioral Health Society, Schreyer Honors College Student Council, THON, Mid-State Literacy Council
Career Goals: Aspiring physician

After months of anticipation, I was eager to go into the field in Tanzania. The challenges that were encountered during the day aligned well with the topics that were discussed during my Global Health minor classes. When we arrived at the first home of the village, I thought that we were not going to be able to survey other residents because they were working on their farms. Instead, the medical students and supervisor for the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences were working to establish a relationship with the family.

A woman from the home served as our guide, as we traveled from hut to hut to survey mothers about the vaccination status of their children under two years. If we did not have her flexibility and willingness to help, we would have never have made it through the village. Through high grasses, we walked on narrow, sandy paths to travel to each home, which were spaced at least ten minutes away from each other.

What struck me most was how the way of life was so detached from the rest of the world. I began thinking about the practical constraints with starting health interventions in the area, beginning with the challenges to travel from the village. It took the villagers about an hour to travel to their local clinics. If there were education initiatives conducted in the area, a major challenge would be the travel times for the children to meet. The concepts about individual perceptions of health became clearer to me as I considered that the locals knew what they knew, while modern medicine played a minimal role in the schemes of their lives.

After seeing a setting where global health initiatives could be implemented, I realized the essential nature of cooperating with local individuals. The village had specific needs based on its sanitation system, availability of water, accessibility of homes, and many other factors. Several of these factors could not have been observed if it were not for the cooperation with the locals. This relationship was only established by communicating with the village leaders, the woman who served as our guide, and the women that we interviewed, all in Swahili. I realized that specific conditions were necessary to study remote areas, in order to have any hope of establishing any kind of targeted program.

On a lighter note, I realized how much fun fieldwork can be. I loved observing a different, peaceful lifestyle. I had a great time speaking broken Swahili with our guide, and laughing with her as we walked on the tall grasses as we tried to avoid the water that had taken over a quarter mile of the path. I found the fieldwork experience both eye-opening and exhilarating.

Our Stellar Students: Christina Spohn, Recreation, Park and Tourism Management

Today, I’m beginning a project to share some of the stories of our outstanding Health and Human Development students. Many students responded to my call for guest bloggers to share their summer experiences, whether that’s in an internship, study abroad, research or some other activity.  Here’s our first guest blog:

My name is Christina Spohn and I just finished my junior year at Penn State. I am a Recreation, Park and Tourism Management major focusing in Outdoor Recreation, and you will most likely find me outside, recreating! I am from outside of Pittsburgh, PA and I love all things outdoors- backpacking, fly fishing, rock climbing, biking and the list goes on! At Penn State I am involved in the Outing Club and On My Honor: Campus Girl Scouts of Penn State.My career plans are pretty up in the air, but I would love to work for a federal land management agency in the near future.

Before our summit of Casco Peak. I am in a white coat, farthest to the right

Before our summit of Casco Peak. I am in a white coat, farthest to the right

This summer I am working as a Logistics Intern for the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS). COBS was the first Outward Bound school in the United States and has been in operation for over 50 years. We run courses ranging in length from 5-90 days focusing on character and leadership development through mountaineering, alpine backpacking and rock climbing.

Mt Massive is in the Sawatch mountain range

Mt Massive is in the Sawatch mountain range

My role here is two-fold: will serve as a field and support intern. As a field intern, I will spend 20 days on mountaineering or backpacking course in the high peaks of Colorado, shadowing the course instructors. We teach students how to travel and live in the mountains, focusing on group dynamics and personal growth. As a support intern, I will be helping courses prepare for their field time, resupply them once or twice during their trip, and help the students close out the course. This includes shuttling students to and from their courses, packing food and gear and helping with evacuations and other course needs.

View of the Mesquite Mountain range.

View of the Mesquite Mountain range.

There is an intern team of 20 people and we are based out of the COBS warehouse on our base in Leadville, CO. Leadville is the highest incorporated town in the U.S. at 10,200 feet, so we are right in the heart of the mountains! We have almost completed training, which consisted of a 6-day field section and 8 days of logistics training.

Ice axes became our best friends over the course of the trip!

Ice axes became our best friends over the course of the trip!

For our field training, we rock climbed and summited Casco Peak, a 13,900 foot mountain in the Sawatch Range. Quite the epic job preparation! During logistics training we have been simulating course events and learning to drive F350 pickup trucks. I’m excited to keep you updated on my mountain adventures!

A view from the office of a typical RPTM intern.

A view from the office of a typical RPTM intern.

If you want to see the appeal of RPTM, think about a management career where THIS is your office, rather than a cubicle!!


The Value of Academic Mentoring

As we begin New Student Orientation (NSO) here at Penn State, I get the opportunity to see the advisers in our College of Health and Human Development work with our incoming students in selecting their first schedule of courses. This experience, heightened by the fact that my daughter will be heading for her own orientation in less than a month, has made me think about the huge value in the advising and mentoring provided through this relationship.

I like to use the term mentoring, because I think advising done well extends to that relationship. If a student invests in developing a strong relationship with faculty and professional advisers, they do become mentors. I believe too many students miss out on this opportunity.

I also want to share my thoughts on planning your courses in college.  I’ll emphasize that nothing I write replaces what a good session with one of our outstanding academic advisers provides.  Each student is unique and an adviser can provide much, much more than the generic overview I’ll share.

One thing I always tell students is to think about your college education in 4 boxes.  Your first box is what we call “General Education” at Penn State.  Its primary purpose is to build the foundational skills needed for college and life success and to explore and integrate–both your own interests and the array of human understanding.  At Penn State and elsewhere, some of the courses here are required, but the rest allow students to explore their diverse interests and different fields of study.  College affords students the time to dabble in a new area, and I encourage students to look for courses and professors that intrigue them, not just something that looks easy or fits their schedule. A mentor here can make great suggestions about the opportunities at a big university like Penn State.

The second box is your major.  These are the courses that will deepen your skills and knowledge in a particular area and prepare you for your first job or your future education. Within these fields there are often areas of specialization, so a student can work with a mentor to understand their fit with those subfields.

The third box is one I think is an afterthought for many students, but I think can be very important.  Whatever major a student chooses, I think they also need to think about how they will distinguish themselves from other students in the major.  What makes YOU different from every other Economics or Biobehavioral Health major? So, this box could be a minor or a second major or a deep study of 1 or more languages or research/study abroad experiences or any of many other ways of emphasizing other aspects that make you unique. A mentor can help a student sort through those many opportunities and find the right one.

The final box is also one that is forgotten.  I call it the fun box. Many majors do have a little room for electives, supporting courses, or other areas where a student has some freedom to choose. Take a class together with friends. Find an interesting course taught by a worldwide expert. Do a Spring Break service learning course. You’re young. Have a little fun (even as you learn!)

My final piece of advice is that building mentoring and advising relationships takes time. Students need to visit their faculty and professional advisers at least once every semester. They need to go visit each of their professors during office hours during the first month of each class and return, not just if they need help, but because they want the benefits of good advice (how do you find a mentor if you don’t talk with them? And your mentor does not have to be an adviser assigned to you!) My biggest disappointment as a faculty member is how few students take advantage of my advising time.

I want to wish our new students in Health and Human Development the best of luck as they plan their future. I want to thank our faculty and professional advisers for the outstanding work they do.  The value of academic mentoring is huge, and students who make the most of these personal relationships will find great success in college and beyond.

General Education Retreat: Day 1 Reflection

Penn State kicked off its next round of General Education change with a retreat of the full task force and subcommittees yesterday afternoon.  I thought it was a day of good discussion and, more importantly, listening.

As subcommittees met with students, faculty and staff in the Spring semester, it seemed evident that there were some significant concerns and questions about reform. At least some of that centered on the idea of themes. Some of it also centered on the question of whether the Task Force was truly listening to concerns and trying to be responsive. Ann Taylor’s excellent memo summarized the concerns and helped to focus attention on the topic.

As the discussion developed, it appeared to me that the idea that integration can and does happen in many ways–through themes, through individual interdisciplinary courses, through experiential learning opportunities, through integrative capstone courses, through research with faculty, through co-curricular programs, through learning communities–began to surface.

So, maybe the path forward is to discover a way to give students, faculty, and campuses the freedom to offer several different ways to develop integrative thinking, with themes an option among others. A creative approach like this–while certainly much more challenging to assess–might be just the unique Penn State approach needed. With campuses or colleges trying different approaches, we might just learn which ones work for different students, providing an evidence-based contribution to research on this topic.