UNIVERSITY PARK — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States last spring, Jessica Butler was about to begin an internship at a local juvenile detention center, which she had arranged to complete the graduation requirements for her online bachelor’s degree program.

“Everything was set up, and then the school sent out an email saying we can’t go out and do internships,” said Butler, who lives in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and was at the time a Penn State World Campus student majoring in human development and family studies. “I was at a loss. You just want to finish!”

When it became clear that students like Butler would lose their in-person internships because of pandemic shutdowns, a team of faculty and staff scrambled to set up virtual internships and alternative course work, said Kathryn Hynes, who helps develop curriculum for the program for the Penn State College of Health and Human Development.

Jessica Butler is wearing a Penn State cap and gown at a Nittany Lion statue
Jessica Butler at a Nittany Lion shrine
Provided by Jessica Butler

The two courses they came up with have been so successful that faculty plan to incorporate them into the undergraduate curriculum even when in-person internships again become available.

The courses, "Individual and Organizational Responses to a Global Pandemic: Challenges, Impacts, and Resilient Adaptation" and "Remote Work & Service Delivery in HDFS Fields," are designed to have the same learning objectives as an internship, Hynes said. She called the classes “a real collaborative effort” among staff, internship directors, and faculty at several campuses.

The courses are currently being offered for a third consecutive semester.

Shannon Corkery, director of World Campus HDFS programs, said the new courses were part of the department’s efforts to design curriculum that is adaptive to the ever-evolving needs of students and the workforce.

“Despite none of us expecting a pandemic, the careful thought work we’ve been doing for some time really enabled our HDFS team to quickly adapt and respond with high-quality alternatives to internship,” she said.

Students in the Individual and Organizational Responses course pick a topic and do a project that combines interviews with professionals in the field in their own communities with reading and class presentations. The goal: learning how human service organizations are adapting their services to meet the changing needs of people in their communities.

“They have to create a project map and proposal, and then we guide them through,” Hynes said. 

The projects help students build their professional networks and develop interviewing skills and get them to step “outside of their comfort zones in ways they need to be HDFS professionals,” Hynes said. “These skills are really important for them.”

The Remote Work & Service Delivery course covers skills such as how to administer Zoom meetings, how to use privacy settings, how to choose and use a learning management system, and how to design websites and social media campaigns. Students also learn how privacy and confidentiality issues are handled in remote work environments.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What do our students need to know so that they can get a job in a rapidly changing job market?’’’ Hynes said.

One student who had planned to do an internship in a nursing home instead did her final project in the Remote Work class by helping the facility figure out how to get the most out of the iPads they purchased, so that residents could use them for more than just video calls.

“She did a presentation of all the sorts of things they could do, such as virtual field trips and games,” Hynes said. “That was pretty cool.” 

Butler, who is 44, graduated in August, becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree. She works as an LPN in a correctional facility in Wilkes-Barre and is interested in a career in patient advocacy. For her project, Butler contacted domestic violence agencies around the state to find out how they were connecting with victims during the pandemic.

Melissa Gonzalez, who also graduated in August, lives near Palo Alto, California. She had planned to complete her internship requirement at the preschool where she works as a teacher.

Melissa Gonzalez wears a Penn State sweatshirt
Melissa Gonzalez
Provided by Melissa Gonzalez

Gonzalez, who is 27, said she was discouraged at first by the cancellation of her internship, but then realized the courses provided opportunities she wouldn’t have had and taught her new skills.

Gonzalez researched remote services and resources being provided to foster parents during the pandemic. 

“I had to learn to network and reach out,” she said. She is in touch with one of the nonprofits she spoke with about future job possibilities.

Learn more about the bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies.