The reopening of college and university campuses was seen as presenting a high risk for transmission of COVID-19. Thus, these institutions faced with a new public health challenge never heretofore faced on this scale. To magnify the problem, they needed to rapidly develop and implement re-opening plans in an environment filled with uncertainty and for a population that was significantly less likely to observe COVID-19 mitigation behaviors. In response, within three weeks of opening, as part of its COVID-19 public health strategy, a West Coast university created and trained a public health workforce comprised of 282 undergraduates tasked with encouraging compliance with COVID-19 mitigating healthy behaviors. Main objectives This paper describes the use and outcomes of a practicum framework to quickly create a university-based public health workforce. It addresses two questions: (1) Using a practicum framework, what are important considerations in designing and building a public health workforce for a university campus? and (2) What are the benefits to the workforce in terms of public health education and professional growth? Methods Program administrative data were used to describe the workforce and their learning outcomes. Results The majority of students indicated that through the practicum, they learned new skills/developed new attitudes (71.7%) and became aware of their own strengths and opportunities for professional growth (73.7%). The types of new skills and attitudes learned included communication (49.2%), conflict management (20.4%), time management (7.5%), and open-mindedness/less judgmental attitude (14.6%). In terms of public health, they gained an understanding of infectious disease prevention (40.9%) that is multi-disciplinary (20.5%), and involves a community effort (36.8%). Conclusions These findings demonstrate an effective way of rapidly addressing public health concerns that allowed for on the job training and opportunities for young adults to learn and grow. The practicum framework allowed the expeditious development of a public health workforce that ensured a fit between student interests and the role. This led to high retention with the majority of students continuing into the winter quarter. Only 5% of students reported not being satisfied with their position. None of the students contracted job-related COVID-19. The role gave students a sense of purpose during the pandemic’s uncertain times that helped to protect them from the negative effects of stress. The practicum structure and support fostered a safe environment in which students were able to feel part of the larger community while gaining valuable work experience and skills and serve their community.
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