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From International Internship to Pursuing Public Health

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IES Abroad
April 18, 2018

IES Internships alumna Michelle Wagner (Rome Summer Internship 2015 | Penn State University)Intern giving tour of neighborhood in Rome
wears many hats: graduate student, world traveler, public health enthusiast, and blogger, to name a few. In a previous role as an IES intern in Rome, Michelle participated in hands-on work, came face-to-face with social issues, gained a professional mentor, and paved her path to graduate school. Read on as Michelle explains her international internship.

Applying to Intern Abroad

Once I was accepted to an internship abroad program through my undergraduate institution, IES Internships staff in Rome worked with me to send my résumé to organizations that had health internships in Rome. The internship interview took place over Skype, as well as résumé review sessions. I would recommend putting in the time to create a professional résumé that can be understood by people who speak English as a second language. For example, I was told that “extracurricular activities” is an American term that may be confusing to those reviewing résumés.

About My IES Internships Placement

Located in Trastevere, a picturesque neighborhood in Rome, I was an intern at The National Institute of Health, Migration and Poverty (NIHMP). This popular, medieval neighborhood was a 45-minute walk from my apartment or a 25-minute bus ride. I walked ninety percent of the time. The NIHMP provides health care services and acts as a starting point for refugees, immigrants, the homeless, and other vulnerable populations—free of charge. They also take international trips to empower and educate people about their right to access health care and conduct scientific research.

Day in the Life of an Intern Abroad

Desk in science lab with microscopeMy responsibilities at my internship in Rome entailed microbiology research and assisting organizing public health programming-related events. One of the most valuable experiences I received was assisting in planning the South European Network for Health Inequalities meeting where I recorded the minutes of the meeting.

I was able to give representatives from eight European countries a tour around Trastevere. Here I got to meet physicians and public health activists from around the globe, including Dr. Michael Marmot—a pioneer in the field of health inequalities based in the UK.

The microbiology research was a wonderful opportunity, working with a scientist, Dr. Calcaterra, who is now a mentor of mine. She taught me so much. She discussed her struggles as a woman in STEM and how she persisted. I am forever grateful for the wealth of knowledge I learned from her.

The research studied occurrence of candida colonization (fungal infections typically found in mucous membranes) in the epithelial cells of the mouth from patients of the NIHMP outpatient dental center. Here’s what we did: 

  1. Collect swabs from patients who wore dentures
  2. Stain the cells to be studied under the microscope
  3. Identify if candida is present, and if it is, we identify the exact type of candida (commonly candida albicans).
  4. To all cells, positive or negative for candida, we treated them with antibodies and dye to illuminate specific proteins in the cell that are present in phagocytosis. In patients with candida, phagocytosis occurring implies that the immune system is killing the fungal infection.

I did not take any Italian language courses while I was there, but I wish I had [IES Internships offers for-credit language courses during the summer and Survival Italian Language in fall and spring]! It was a bit challenging to communicate with some coworkers, but for the most part everyone at the NIHMP spoke English. After all, English is the universal language of science.

Working Face-to-Face with Refugees

In the midst of the refugee crisis, there was a huge influx of refugees in Italy and Greece due to the proximity to Syria. I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the globe. Being face-to-face with refugees and seeing their unique health needs inspired me to study health equity, global health, and social determinants of health. It can be a helpless feeling knowing about such pressing health issues occurring across the globe. I chose to get a Masters of Public Health because I wanted to focus on prevention. I love working in preventive medicine to improve health equity and spread health education at the population level.Coffee and Map in Rome

Grad School 

Prior to studying abroad, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school; however, my experience interning abroad changed what I wanted to study. The opportunities I was given opened my eyes to the field of public health and shaped the course of my career. One of the most invaluable aspects of studying abroad is being exposed to other cultures and backgrounds, which gives you so much perspective.

Between 2014-2015, 313,000 U.S. students studied abroad, but only 7% of those students volunteered or completed an internship.*

During the graduate school admissions process, I emphasized the work I did abroad. This was one of the highlights of my application, and I was told that the experience was so unique that it made me standout as a candidate. Supplementing my reflection in my essays and personal statement, my internship boss offered to write a letter of recommendation for me. 

*Source: IIE 2017 Open Doors Report and NAFSA “Trends in U.S. Study Abroad”


Michelle Wagner graduated from Penn State University in 2017 with a degree in Biobehavioral Health and is currently working towards her Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She's passionate about preventitive medicine, travel, and a plant-based lifestyle. Interested in learning more about Michelle, her summer internship abroad, and her time in graduate school? Check out her personal blog Caffeinated Grad and try not to be inspired to intern abroad in Rome yourself!

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