University of Florida Student Tackles HIV/AIDS in the Rural South

by Johanzynn Gatewood


Students of Public Health focuses on research projects and other contributions students are making to advance public health. This series is guest edited by Johanzynn Gatewood, an MPH candidate in Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Florida-Gainesville [Full bio].

Johanzynn Gatewood, MPH Candidate

Johanzynn Gatewood, MPH Candidate

STUDENT VOICES — They say that your first internship may not always be your most impressionable experience in college, but everything I have been able to accomplish thus far in my graduate studies I attribute to my first internship. During my final year of my undergraduate studies, I interned for the Rural South Public Health Training Center at the University of Florida, a grant-funded continuing education initiative. Specifically, it was a distance continuing education training on HIV/AIDS for public health workers who were based in rural areas of the South.

As an intern, I worked under Dr. Mark Hart of the Rural South Public Health Training Center on a research project in collaboration with the local health department regarding avatar usage in HIV/AIDS education. Since this was my first exposure to public health, I had a lot to learn as I progressed through the project. One of my initial duties included conducting a literature review of avatar usage and online HIV/AIDS education. As I began to develop these essential skills in research, I learned how to navigate my way through abstract after abstract – a skill I consistently use to this day in my own coursework and research.

Dr. Hart was able to use to my literature review to understand the current training model utilized by public health workers and develop a new model using online technologies, like avatars. In the new model, patients and public health workers seeking continuing education could access the information online through a website where frequently asked questions, ranging from testing, medications, and symptoms are answered by an expert public health worker through an avatar. In this way, patients could confidentially ask personal questions regarding their own HIV/AIDS status without fear or embarrassment.

Once the new model was identified, I assisted in developing the avatars and creating the videos with specific dialogue regarding HIV/AIDS topics. During this time, I was exposed to issues of cultural competency and I had to learn how to create an inclusive, diverse set of avatars for all populations. This was a very meaningful experience for me because it reinforced a critical issue in public health on how to maintain cultural competency. I learned that while you must tailor your messages to specific groups, you also must understand who you want to target and why.

My overall internship experience was significant to me because I was able to explore the field of public health and understand what kind of role I could play in it. After my internship at the Rural South Public Health Training Center, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in public health. In retrospect, it also introduced me to my interests in health communication and closing the communication gap between academics and the vulnerable populations.

My advice for students who are, as I was, unsure of what to do in their professional careers is to take each internship as a learning experience. You never know where that path may lead you. I guarantee that with each internship you choose to do, you will develop skills needed to further your professional development, even if you do not recognize it at the time. Looking back on my own experience, I realize that what I learned during that semester interning for the Rural South Public Health Training Center set the tone for establishing my career in public health.

For further reading, consider these related articles from the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice*:

*Articles may require a subscription to JPHMP or purchase.


Johanzynn Gatewood, BS, is an MPH candidate at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Her interests include health communication, the role of social media in public health, health literacy, and minority health. [Full bio].

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