Transitioning from student to professional

Allison Della Penna 18 Psychology Child Life

Utica College students gain more than job experience in impressive internships all over the world, and in some cases, those real-life learning opportunities are not helping the future of these students, but the present of those they work with every day.

Allison Della Penna ’18, a Psychology – Child Life major with a concentration in Child Life Specialty paddled through the notoriously competitive waters of child life internship applications and interviews, applying to 20 children’s hospitals throughout the Northeast. Of those, she scored interviews at 10, including one of her top contenders – a rural children’s hospital in Vermont.

However Della Penna opted for an internship at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, New York, where she is the only child life intern on staff.

“I knew I could grow professionally and personally here,” she says. “It was the best choice for me.”

A child life specialist is “half teacher, half social worker,” explains Della Penna. While doctors and nurses are concerned with the medical side of a child’s care, the child life specialist helps explain procedures to kids in language they can understand, sometimes using toys and games to make the hospital less intimidating. “Little things that adults take for granted, like the noises or smells of the hospital, can be scary to children,” she says. “My job is to make them comfortable and create normalcy during their hospital stay.”

"I knew I could grow professionally and personally here."
Allison Della Penna

Della Penna knows firsthand the value of a child life specialist’s role. Her younger brother, Griffin, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was seven, and she has vivid memories of the hospital’s child life specialist explaining the procedures her brother was undergoing, like having a port placed in his chest for chemotherapy. “I remember she used a doll to show me what the port would look like,” she says. “It made it less scary.” Now cancer-free for over a decade, Griffin and his cancer journey help inform Della Penna’s approach to patients everyday. “I can tell families that I know what they’re going through, because I’ve been there.”

As a full-time intern, Della Penna works at Upstate 40 hours a week. For the first half of her internship, Della Penna worked days in the pediatric oncology unit. In the second half, she transitioned to nights in the “much faster-paced” Emergency Department, she says. “In Emergency, you have no idea what to expect, so it’s more challenging.”

“It’s become a joke around here that I always have my ‘bag of tricks’ with me,’” she says, referring to her impressive supply of games, toys, and dolls with pretend medical equipment. “Kids learn and express emotions through play, so toys are really important.” Using a blank-faced doll and marker, for example, Della Penna will ask a child to draw how he’s feeling. “It starts the conversation.”

While Della Penna mostly works under the guidance of her supervisor, one of her proudest moments was preparing a child for a procedure on her own. “I have been able to develop my own skill set here,” she says “This experience is helping me transition from a student to a professional.”

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