Alumna Nichole Fields-Kyle’s REAL Journey Comes Full Circle at Concrete Jungle

February 17, 2021
Nichole Fields-Kyle

By: Karina Antenucci

Alumna Nichole Fields-Kyle (’20) was excited about the Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL) program prior to even setting foot on the Rollins campus to complete her master’s degree in behavioral, social, and health education sciences in 2018. The Rollins signature program, which celebrated 10 years in 2020, offers full-time MPH and MSPH students work opportunities in the public health arena that allow them to earn while they learn in the field. REAL is a cost-sharing program in which the school and partner agencies and organizations split the cost of employing students up to 185 hours per semester, allowing students to earn up to $2,500 per semester ($5,000 per school year). 

“I was really psyched that REAL offered students the opportunity to work with community partners and apply skills to real public health work versus a library desk job,” Fields-Kyle says.

With interests in food systems and food insecurity, it was important to Fields-Kyle that the city where she completed her MPH program had a good food movement as well. “I was attracted to Atlanta because there are a lot of great organizations working in urban agriculture, finding better solutions to support food insecure populations,” she says.

One of the “good food” organizations she found listed as a partner of Rollins was Concrete Jungle, which transforms overlooked and underutilized fruit trees and land into a healthy food source for communities in need. It provided a service site for the school’s Rollins-Teer Day, a half day of community service students participate in during orientation week. After orientation, Fields-Kyle signed up to volunteer every other Saturday on Concrete Jungle’s farm in southwest Atlanta.

Having been offered a REAL award as part of her financial aid package, Fields-Kyle took advantage of the opportunity to gain on-the-job experience through work-study-like positions up to 20 hours per week during the school year. For her first year, she selected a program coordinator position at the Urban Health Initiative at Emory, where she connected high schoolers with undergraduate or graduate students working on health degrees through the Health Career Collaborative.

“REAL was definitely an opportunity to apply what I was actively learning at Rollins, as well as to figure out really what I wanted to do. My first job was doing program coordinating and it helped me realize that I wanted to be more hands-on, working in the food realm,” she explains.

During the summer of 2019, Fields-Kyle got more involved volunteering with Concrete Jungle and opportunity knocked. Katherine Kennedy, the organization’s executive director, told her she needed more part-time help and Fields-Kyle suggested she sign Concrete Jungle up as a REAL partner. 

“I always tell my students, if you are volunteering or working somewhere you love, let’s see if we can make them a REAL partner,” says Lisa V. Parker, REAL program manager, who vets organizations to make sure they have public health competencies and the capabilities to mentor students, pay them, and have enough for them to do over the course of a semester.

Once approved, Concrete Jungle hired Fields-Kyle and Adam Hicks (’21), another Rollins student who had been a committed volunteer. The two student employees were put in charge of the nutrition education program intended to educate soup kitchen and pantry clients about the local varieties of produce Concrete Jungle distributed to them. They developed and launched helpful programming including onsite recipe demos and cooking lessons (pre-COVID) and recipe cards featuring easy recipes using the produce, such as turnip slaw.

Serendipitously, Concrete Jungle had the capacity to bring Fields-Kyle on full-time as program manager 72 hours after she graduated in May of 2020. “Getting involved in Concrete Jungle is my Cinderella story,” says Fields-Kyle. A significant number of REAL students go on to work at their REAL organization post-graduation, notes Parker. 

Today, Fields-Kyle’s REAL experience has come full circle. She now supervises two REAL students, Hicks and Claire Fendrick (’22), who lead logistics and volunteer efforts to keep the organization's COVID grocery delivery program running. The part-time staffers are making a difference during the pandemic by allowing high-risk, food insecure Atlantans to quarantine while still having their food needs met. 

“With only three full-time staff members, we wouldn’t be able to do this program without them,” notes Fields-Kyle, who also manages 15 weekly volunteers. “Most graduate-level students come into a REAL position with some level of professional experience. It’s not just like getting an intern.”

She adds, “It is easy for an employer to become a REAL partner, and it has been a huge help for Concrete Jungle. For me, it was great to work with an organization that I was passionate about and REAL was the connecting force that made it a reality.”

Her words of wisdom for Rollins students considering the REAL program? “Have an idea what you want to do and try.”

Find out more about REAL and Concrete Jungle. Visit the REAL anniversary website to learn about the programs impact over the past 10 years.