REAL | Earn. Learn. Thrive.
The Rollins School of Public Health’s signature program, Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL), offers full-time MPH and MSPH students with work opportunities in the public health arena that allow them to earn while they learn. Students develop professional goals, meet public health competencies, and complement their classroom training with invaluable work experiences in the field. REAL is a cost-sharing program in which the school and partner agencies and organizations split the cost of employing students up to 185 hours per semester, allowing students to earn up to $2,500 per semester ($5,000 per year).
Over its 10-year history, REAL partners have included 150 federal, state, and county agencies, as well as nonprofit and for-profit organizations in Atlanta and throughout the United States. These integral experiences often fulfill applied practice experience (or practicum) requirements, lead to thesis opportunities, and provide an enriching experience for both partners and students. The mentorship and skills students receive during their REAL employment enables them to thrive in their degree programs and establish strong partnerships in the field that often lead to fulfilling careers and friendships after graduation.
REAL got its start in 2009 when work-study funding for graduate students was eliminated. Rollins’ Dean, James W. Curran, recognized the importance of helping students fund their education while gaining applied public health experience with vetted community partners and to make it available to at least half of the student body. The framework for the program was built out of existing partnerships with University affiliates, and national and international agencies enabling unique opportunities for students to engage in hands-on research, mentoring, and public health practice.
What will the next ten years bring? Goals for the next decade of REAL include expanding cost-sharing opportunities to global partners outside the United States through international remote work arrangements and amplifying the impact of the REAL award by making it available to every Rollins student.
“Working with the CDC through the REAL program gave me invaluable experience in public health and the work being done on a global scale. It has also allowed me to implement skills I have developed through the BSHES curriculum in real-time through my role. Within my role I contribute to communications projects for the Faces from the Frontline campaign, in an effort to express the important global work of the Division of Global HIV & TB.”
- Teresa Puente, MPH 2020
George Lopez, Health Policy MPH ‘20
George Lopez’s REAL position at The Task Force for Global Health gives him hands-on experience working on programs and projects directly related to his areas of interest, which include health ethics, community outreach, and compassion-based policy. In his role as a Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE) intern, Lopez assists with training programs, research, and consulting related to global ethical frameworks.
Prior to Lopez’s arrival, the Task Force for Global Health’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET) conducted a survey assessing different public health problems practitioners face in the field. Now, much of Lopez’s focus has been placed on analyzing the results of this survey utilizing SAS. He’s specifically looking at the ethical challenges and aspects of moral distress that epidemiologists face in the field.
“There’s such a positive energy at The Task Force. People have these exciting projects and programs. My mentors have been very open, flexible, and have empowered me to problem-solve,” he says. “Even when I hit problems or challenges, I have their support and I learn a lot through the process.”
Lopez’s experience at The Task Force for Global Health is the latest addition to an already impressive public health resume. A neuroscience major and public health minor, Lopez came to Rollins after two years working in the field, first at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, then at a federally-qualified health center where he worked on the NIH’s All of Us Research Program. Both experiences established his foundation and interest in public health. During the summer after his first year at Rollins, he was selected to be part of the Access to Essential Medicines Project, overseen by Bill Foege (founder of The Task Force for Global Health and former CDC director) and Glen Reed. One of the project’s partners included The Task Force for Global Health, which he enjoyed working with. So, when Lopez saw the FACE position posted in Handshake, he knew he had found a match.
During his interview for the position with his future supervisor and mentor, David Addiss, Lopez mentioned the book Medicine and Compassion: A Tibetan Lama's Guidance for, which inspired him to pursue an MPH. To his delight, Addiss mentioned that he knew one of the authors, David Shlim! Lopez eventually met the author of that favorite book at the Epidemiology of Love and Compassion Conference this past January, which he helped to organize.
“I’d say with this position and my time at Rollins, everything’s just gone full circle,” says Lopez. “I had these reasons for coming back to school—learning about policy and other facets of public health— then got to be part of a project that I find interesting and feel I’m making an impact on. I’m continuously learning more and having exposure to these really great people with varied experiences that they’re able to give some insight on. It’s just been really fantastic.”
“My REAL experience allowed me to directly apply what I was learning in classes to real-world public health activities. My learning on the job from mentors and CDC trainings was an incredible supplement to my graduate degree experience. These opportunities made me a more effective public health professional and, I believe, a more competitive applicant for positions after graduation.”
- Kellan Burrell, MPH 2019
Monica Godfrey, MPH, CHES
Associate Director of Programs, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases
The Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center, Emory University School of Medicine
Monica Godfrey, one of the staff leads for a number of clinical trials and research studies at The Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center, was responding to her staff’s request for student employees when she discovered the Rollins Earn and Lean (REAL) program. After attending a REAL information session at Rollins, she signed up to become an employer partner in May 2018, and has steadily advocated for REAL positions ever since.
“Serving as a supervisor to REAL students has been an exceptional experience,” she says. “These students are bright, energetic, and enthusiastic. Through their work with us, the students have an opportunity to develop and utilize practical skills alongside public health practitioners that complement what they’ve learned in the classroom. REAL allows me to mentor students and to be a beacon of light to future practitioners who share my passion for eradicating diseases, improving the overall health and well-being of those within our communities, and making a genuine difference in the lives of others.”
Students who have engaged with Godfrey at the Hope Clinic have been involved with various research studies and have been assigned such wide-ranging tasks as: collecting, organizing, and entering research data into research databases; assisting in the analysis and interpretation of qualitative and quantitative data; and contributing to community engagement and recruitment endeavors. Previous students have also contributed to manuscripts.
Throughout it all, Godfrey and colleagues have been pleasantly surprised by students’ ability to step outside of their comfort zones and to share dynamic new ideas. In addition to the much-needed help REAL students are able to provide, Godfrey notes that student employees also provide benefits to the job site that are more difficult to measure. For one thing, her team is happier and appreciates the additional help and support.
“Not only is REAL a cost-effective method for hiring students and helping them earn money while they’re in school, it also benefits my entire staff. Students are sharp and willing to take on new skills, which eases the burden on our full-time employees,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s easy for staff to get complacent in a workplace, and the students’ energy and willingness to learn helps to build a more positive and vigorous environment for everyone.”
In the short time Godfrey has been involved with REAL, she’s had the opportunity to supervise and mentor three students. One matriculated and entered medical school, which is an accomplishment Godfrey shares pride in. Another is a 2020 MPH candidate with a concentration in global health who is currently applying for internships (Godfrey serves as a reference for her). Godfrey just hired another prior REAL student onto her team full-time to serve as a program coordinator to facilitate community education and recruitment activities for clinical trials and research studies for HIV prevention.
When asked to articulate the overall benefits of being a REAL employer, Godfrey is downright passionate. “Being a REAL employer bestows the opportunity to invest in and develop future practitioners into the best version of public health professionals. Having the opportunity to inspire and help someone who is ambitious, eager to learn, and open to feedback has been a meaningful and fulfilling experience for me,” she says. “Working with these students has been a great reminder of why I do what I do, and it’s refreshing to know that we have so many bright scholars following in our footsteps.”
“My REAL job not only allowed me to expand my network, but I got the opportunity to learn about a new field. My mentor was especially wonderful--she allowed me to work on a variety of tasks and she made sure that I got as much out of the program as the office I was working in did. I appreciate that Rollins stresses the importance of gaining real-world and applicable experience in your REAL position, to both students and to employers.”
- Alexandra Wickson, MPH 2019
Kristin Liu, MPH 2018
Presidential Management Fellow, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
“I learned soft and hard skills during my REAL position at Georgia Tech,” recalls Kristin Liu of her REAL placement within Georgia Tech’s Office of Health Promotion. A behavioral, social, and health education sciences student, Liu had a strong interest in sexual health. With the support and guidance of her REAL supervisors, Liu took an active role in supporting and implementing various programs on Georgia Tech’s campus related to sexual health, sexual violence, and drug and alcohol use during her position. She even implemented her own vision for National Condom Day on campus, which included showing students how to make condom roses and creating safe sex goody bags.
Liu’s REAL job gave her experience working with diverse stakeholders on a project and exposed her to the nuances of communicating effectively with various populations on a college campus. Liu’s supervisors all happened to be Rollins alumni, which was also beneficial to her experience since they were familiar with the courses she was taking and encouraged her to apply the skills she was learning in class with the day-to-day requirements of her job.
After graduation, Liu was hired as an ORISE fellow at the CDC. While in that role, she had the opportunity to help a colleague create and hire for a REAL position, which gave Liu the chance to mentor and provide guidance to a Rollins student. Now, she’s a Presidential Management Fellow working as a health communication specialist within CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Her current job allows her to tackle health promotion at a high level and on a national scale as she executes impactful internal and external communication projects. In her role, Liu writes for and edits portions of the center’s website (which includes overseeing the Features section of the site), she leads a work group focused on creating a cohesive style guide for the entire center to use, and she prepares and implements various communication plans surrounding issues of national concern.
“REAL was one of the reasons I came to Rollins, and it has certainly paid off dividends for my professional career,” she says. “I gained invaluable experience during my health promotion experience that I am thankful for each day I am at my current job.”