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Student Awardee's Initiative Leads to Unique Practicum and Capstone Experience at ColoradoSPH's Public Health Training Center

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Written by Tyler Smith on May 24, 2023

As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Lexie King intended to study to be a nurse. Three years in, however, she changed her mind. She earned her degree in communications, with a minor in public health.

The love for communications hasn’t left King, but public health is a minor no more. After doing training work in the corporate setting, King said she realized she wanted to “dig deeper” into public health.

“It started from a passion to help our communities live healthier lives,” she said. “I wasn’t as interested in helping people manage or maintain a disease like diabetes as I was in helping them make sure they didn’t get diabetes in the first place.”

King pursued her new goal. She is now a MPH candidate in the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and is on track to graduate in December from the school’s online Leadership & Public Health Practice program. She’s done extensive work with ColoradoSPH’s Rocky Mountain Public Health Training Center (RM-PHTC), where she completed her practicum and her capstone project. King has also contributed her expertise in communications as a delegate to the Emerging Leadership Committee (ELC) of the Colorado Public Health Association (CPHA).

And the hard work has paid off. King received ColoradoSPH’s Student Excellence in Public Health Practice award for 2023. Her commitment to public health is now firmly entrenched.

Finding a place in public health

“Public health people are my people,” King said. She added that attending the recent Public Health in the Rockies Conference and becoming part of CPHA solidified that conviction. ColoradoSPH is the annual presenting sponsor of the regional conference, and more than one-third of attendees are alumni.

“I got to network with and meet people I never would have met otherwise,” King said. “I connected with people across Colorado who are passionate about making [the state] healthier and better.”

King said she formed one of those key ties after attending an American Public Health Association (APHA) conference, where she joined educational sessions and learned about the role of regional public health training centers. That experience led to her meeting Olivia Jolly, ColoradoSPH’s practice-based learning manager with the RM-PHTC, which operates as one of 10 regional public health training centers under the federal Health Resources & Service Administration (HRSA). Jolly explained RM-PHTC’s mission to develop and train public health leaders within the six-state HRSA Region 8, which includes Colorado.

“That aligned perfectly with what I love to do,” said King, who had previous corporate training experience in the food and beverage industry. “I wanted to start training in public health.”

Discovering the importance of leadership

She joined a team led by Sarah Davis, associate director of the RM-PHTC. King watched how Davis successfully ran remote meetings and felt right at home as Davis made her part of the team. She also  immediately tried to soak up Davis’s leadership style.

“I learned from Sarah about mentorship, how to manage remote teams, what leadership development means and how to do qualitative assessments and research,” King said. “The experience overlapped with everything I love. She inspired me and taught me the kind of person I want to be as a leader. Finding the RM-PHTC was a pivotal moment in my academic career.”

King ultimately completed both her practicum and capstone project at RM-PHTC. For the practicum, she conducted qualitative interviews with public health leaders from each of the Region 8 states: Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The aim: identify the specific leadership training needed to meet each state’s public health needs, as well as the resources that already existed. King partnered with a local nonprofit, the Regional Institute for Health and Environmental Leadership (RIHEL), as part of her practicum.

King then used that data for her capstone project. She converted feedback gleaned from the interviews into information RM-PHTC could use to pinpoint the kinds of leadership programs needed throughout the region.

“The practicum was the groundwork and foundation for all the data that I presented in the capstone,” King said.

Among the findings: the COVID-19 pandemic exposed shortfalls in public health resources in marginalized communities and the need to bolster support for public health directors burdened with high levels of stress imposed by the pandemic.

Sharpening public health messages

The projects spurred King’s interest in developing and promoting public health leadership, and she joined the ELC as a communications delegate. One important task was to design and distribute a monthly newsletter for the committee. She said she focused on making the newsletter and all ELC communications “more accessible, inclusive and engaging.”

The newsletter presents an easy-to-read format that highlights an emerging leader and includes clickable text linked to upcoming events and surveys, individual profiles and more. King said it’s vital for public health professionals to look for ways to connect with the populations they serve.

“If you can’t actually communicate with your audience about data and science, such as vaccines or community health concerns, you’re not going to make a difference,” she said. “Communication is at the heart of public health because we need to make sure that we are engaging with [people] and making sure whatever we do is accessible.”

These and other efforts culminated in King’s honor for the 2023 Student Excellence in Public Health Practice Award from the school. She said she is both surprised by and appreciative of the recognition.

“I felt all my hard work paid off,” King said. “To see that others believe in me is such a gift. I feel like I have a whole community that supports me and wants me to succeed.”