The Intern vs. the Epidemic

Public health student takes his classroom knowledge to the streets

When Daniel Howell was looking for an internship in public health, a powerful epidemic was tightening its grip.

It was spring 2016, and Massachusetts was losing four people a day to opioid drug overdoses. What could a college intern do in the face of such a crisis?

Howell—a competitor in the world of powerlifting in his off time—described himself as “pumped” to do what he could. He was also prepared.

“I decided to reach out to the Lowell Health Department,” says Howell, a graduate student in UMass Lowell’s public health program. “I was interested in the work they do, what was going on in the state with drug abuse, opioid abuse, substance abuse. I wanted the ability to have a more hands-on approach to things, to test the skills I’ve learned in the classroom.”

He got the gig and rose to the occasion.

Struggle and addiction weren’t his worlds. The 22-year-old grew up in a loving home just outside of Boston, watching his parents serve on committees for their church and community festivals. The more everyone succeeded, the better.

Howell, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in public health at UMass Lowell, inherited his parents’ heart for helping people.

But his college career taught him how to use it effectively. He had originally planned to major in psychology, but a community health class his freshman year changed that.

“The longer it went on, the more interest I had,” he says. “I learned you can have a huge effect on people. I got interested in sickness and illness prevention.”

His coursework gave him the knowledge he’d need to work in the public health profession. His internship gave him the opportunity to apply that know-how and develop a more complete perspective.

“I knew I made the right choice before I even arrived at UMass Lowell,” says Howell. “But it was reaffirmed when my professors made a point of steering me toward real-world experience. It’s not just books that matter. The internship put me in the middle of what I was learning in class and reinforced it.”

While at the Lowell Health Department, he helped run a forum addressing opioid abuse.  Police and health workers spoke to parents and families to explain what they are up against.

The forum drew a large crowd, some of whom had been ignorant of the crisis all around them.

Yet it was pervasive. By 2014, the death rate from opioid overdose in Massachusetts was more than double the national average. Within a hard-hit state, the City of Lowell was among the hardest hit communities.

“You might think everyone is aware of opioids and addiction, but it’s not true,” says Howell. “And it’s not a problem that affects a certain group of people. We as a community are all affected one way or another. And we have to stop looking at addiction as a choice. It’s a disease.”

Part of public health work is engaging with and educating the public on such issues, says Peter Saing, the Lowell Health Department outreach worker who oversaw Howell’s internship.

“When we took Dan to these public events, I wanted to teach him the importance of building relationships,” he says.

Employers like Saing have come to expect that UMass Lowell students will have real-world experience, says Assoc. Prof. Nicole Champagne, chair of UMass Lowell's Department of Public Health.

“An internship is an expected part of an undergraduate experience,” she says. “Employers want people who are able to come in and contribute right off the bat.”

The university prepares students to make a difference, says Champagne.

“We want students to be able to look at the big picture—what’s the next public health issue that will create a very important response in the community?” she says. “Dan’s been able to apply that kind of thinking in the city of Lowell to help address a public health crisis that is affecting lives.”