Capstone program gives students field experience while helping community partners

Photo: Screenshots of pitch videos from potential community partners. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020’s Capstone Pitch Day was held virtually.

Meg Landfried, MPH

Dennis W. Streets

For nearly its entire existence, the Gillings School has offered opportunities for students to make an impact in local communities as part of their studies, but over time those opportunities were expanded and became more meaningful to both the students and the communities they served.

For students in the School’s Capstone program, service-learning projects provide a way for them to gain real-world experience while providing services to community partners. Capstone is a yearlong community-led, mentored service-learning course for second-year master’s students in the Health Behavior concentration and the Health Equity, Social Justice and Human Rights (EQUITY) concentration. The scope of work is based on the community organization’s needs, and the deliverables that students produce for the course meet their master’s thesis requirement.

“The Capstone course is an opportunity for students to translate all the gold standards they’ve learned in the curriculum to real-world public health problems – and to wrestle with the tension of knowing that the gold standard can’t always be implemented in a community-based setting. Having a team to work with you through that process is really valuable,” says Meg Landfried, MPH, assistant professor of health behavior and the department’s Capstone director. “The community partners benefit from the work done by enthusiastic students who are embedded in current public health practices and trends.” Capstone community partners must be located within an hour’s drive of the UNC campus. They include governmental, non-governmental, non-profit, industrial, for-profit, and university-affiliated organizations that work in the public health space, particularly in health equity. Organizations that want to be community partners submit a Capstone proposal each year and, if selected, they attend a “Pitch Day” where they talk with students about working with them. Teams of 4-6 students, along with faculty advisers, are matched up with organizations based on their interest, and a preceptor within the organization supervises the project work. Annually, Capstone students provide approximately $255,000 of in-kind service to partner organizations. 2020’s Pitch Day was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, so organizations submitted videos or presentations virtually and students used online surveys to rank their preferences. This year, 51 students were split into teams and matched up with 11 community partners. For second-year health behavior student Isabella Pallotto, the chance to work with the State Trauma Advisory Council was an opportunity she could not pass up. She’s part of a five-student team working with the Council, an organization of hospitals and trauma treatment facilities throughout North Carolina, to improve care for pediatric trauma patients. “Most members of our team want to partner public health with medicine in some way, which is why we all picked something with a medical focus,” said Pallotto, who plans to earn a PhD in clinical psychology and whose goal is to work in a hospital as a clinical pediatric psychologist.

Everyone who comes to Gillings is passionate about building partnerships. The capstone allows us to put this into practice.

Often, children suffering from trauma are stabilized and treated first in hospitals or other care facilities that typically work more with adults. Indicators of injury can be difficult to assess in children because their body composition and their signs of injury are more subtle than in adults. Physicians who typically work with adults in emergency departments are not as familiar with how children’s bodies respond to injury, so CT scans are commonly used to look for internal injuries – exposing developing cells to radiation that could lead to cancer or other health problems in the long term. Pallotto’s team is working with the Council to develop consistent statewide guidelines recommending when CT imaging is the most appropriate course of action and when to avoid the scan. They also are evaluating issues related to equity in diagnosis and treatment of trauma patients. “The Council is made up of physicians and EMTs, so they all have another primary job that’s very demanding, but this is an important project that they’ve really been wanting to do,” Pallotto says. “I’m glad that we are helping a great community organization and that we get to be a part of making change.” Over the past decade, 65 capstone partner organizations have worked with student teams. Partner organizations define the scope of the capstone project work – an approach that prioritizes their specific needs and gives students an opportunity to do applied public health work on a range of topics in a variety of settings with diverse populations. The Chatham County Council on Aging has worked with consecutive capstone teams, along with three summer interns from Gillings.

"Given our aging demographic in Chatham, we saw the need for a comprehensive plan for our county but lacked the capacity to undertake a significant and complex project of this nature,” said Dennis W. Streets, the Council’s executive director. “We could not have undertaken development of the comprehensive aging plan without the capstone team. They brought tremendous energy, creativity, talent and commitment to the project.” Streets, who was a MPH graduate of Gillings in 1978, said the development of the 2018–2023 Aging Plan is serving as a tool for the entire community, not just the Council on Aging. “It has already served as the catalyst for many important initiatives and collaborative relationships in Chatham County that are strengthening our response and preparedness for our aging population,” he says. That sense of collaboration and community engagement, Pallotto says, are why the service-learning opportunities in the capstone program are so meaningful to students. “Everyone who comes to Gillings and does public health is passionate about connecting with the community and building partnerships. The capstone program is rewarding because it allows us to put this into practice,” she says. “We’re not just learning to write a paper. We gain professional experience as a team doing a really big project and working with community members to make a real difference. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Gillings for my public health degree.”


Community partners benefit from the work done by enthusiastic students who are embedded in current public health practices and trends.