Allegheny Students Listen, Learn During Health Center Internship in Hawaii

Allegheny College seniors Brittany Imel and Julia Drozdowsky found strength in community during an internship this past summer at the Western Hawaii Community Health Center, an opportunity provided by an Allegheny alumnus.

The center has four locations throughout Hawaii and describes its mission as “making quality, comprehensive, and integrated health services accessible to all who pass through our doors regardless of their ability to pay.” Its CEO, Richard Taaffe, graduated from Allegheny in 1972 and offered the internship for the first time this year.

Brittany Imel and Julia Drozdowsky
Allegheny seniors Brittany Imel and Julia Drozdowsky

“I really liked that Richard Taaffe was an Allegheny grad,” says Drozdowsky, a global health studies major and biology minor. “I knew automatically that how he ran the clinic was probably based on the values he gained at Allegheny, and I think those are heavily based on making sure others are taught as well as contributing to the community, so I knew that I would get a lot out of [the internship].”

The selection process began through the Allegheny Gateway staff, who developed a prospectus for students, asking them to submit a resume and a brief personal statement. More than 20 applicants were interviewed by Taaffe, who then narrowed the field to six candidates.

After a follow-up Skype interview with both Taaffe and a member of the health center’s team, Imel and Drozdowsky were selected.

According to Taaffe, the students’ interests played a key role in determining what their work at the health center was going to look like.

“We tried to tailor the work to the interests of Julia and Brittany, as well as give them a variety of experiences,” he says.

Throughout the internship, the students worked together alongside the health center’s outreach and health education team to find ways to reach out to the Marshallese community in particular. This community had a particularly strong impact on both students.  

“The Marshallese women were very accepting of us,” says Imel, a biology major and art history minor. “They are from the Marshall Islands, and aren’t really normally big fans of people from the mainland. … but they accepted Julia and me right away.”

Julia Drozdowsky and Brittany Imel
Julia Drozdowsky and Brittany Imel

This kind of mutual trust and willingness to learn was, according to Imel and Drozdowski, one key to the success of the health initiatives being implemented. In addition, it allowed them to contribute some of the skills that they’ve acquired during their time at Allegheny. For example, they taught health center employees how to use Excel to track the progress of the activities and people participating in them.

The learning process, however, was mutual, according to Drozdowski.

“We found that if you’re willing to learn and listen, they’ll teach you,” she says. “They want to share, but there are these resorts that are just isolated little inlets and people never leave them. They come to Hawaii for a week and they never actually see Hawaii and the things that people have to offer in the community.”

Ultimately, through the implementation of Zumba classes and other group activities such as a competition resembling “The Biggest Loser,” both students immersed themselves in the community. As Imel nears the end of her undergraduate experience, she says that the value of this experience will likely contribute to her future career in medicine.

“I think the biggest thing, especially for my career in the future, is to listen to people and not assume,” Imel says. “Especially going from a better neighborhood to one that maybe doesn’t have a lot, to not go in there to try to fix it, but to go in there and listen and ask what community members want, what they need from us, and not going in with the answers, not just what we want them to have.”