Jenna Heath has worked in a wide array of industries – politics, entertainment, fitness, food and beverage.
None were a great fit.
But each of these jobs, Heath says, was part of the valuable exploration that comes with internship experience. They served as critical components of her success before and after graduating from San Diego State University with a double major in communication and political science.
Now, as the director of Student and Community Engagement in the College of Liberal Arts, Heath helps UNLV students apply newfound skills and knowledge early on in their college careers. Over the past year she started a peer mentoring program for more than 400 incoming students; initiated a college-wide internship program; and launched the Dean’s Student Advisory Council.
Her work – which includes managing an Institutional Review Boards-approved research study on service learning – has earned her the 2020 UNLV Top Tier Award, which recognizes work that meets the university’s gold standard for research, education, and community impact.
“My goal has always been to meet the students where they are,” said Heath, who is also a UNLV alumna with a master’s in higher education.
“It’s up to us to educate students about the value of internships and to help them understand the power of real-world experience on their resume before they graduate,” she said.
Jennifer Keene, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said Heath’s work is expanding learning experiences for students in and out the classroom.
“Our students have said resoundingly that the new student programs, such as the collegewide internship program, peer mentoring, and service learning, have enhanced their experience and their affinity for the College of Liberal Arts,” Keene said. “In building and expanding these programs, Jenna has helped strengthen relationships with existing community partners, such as our alumni and leadership boards, and connected us to new community partners who help ensure our students have meaningful learning experiences outside the college.”
Heath has successfully married these efforts with the university’s goals for research, Keene said.
“Her approach is very hands-on as well as data-driven,” Keen said. “With every program, she has surveyed students and community partners to identify their needs and expectations. She has monitored students' progress along the way, asked for feedback, and adjusted where needed. It has been remarkable to watch how positively our students and community partners have responded.”
Elena Gandia Garcia, an associate professor in residence who teaches Spanish translation for the professions, concurs.
Gandía García said she relies on Heath to keep the service-learning research project on track. The project, which gauges how service-learning assignments affect students and the organizations they serve, started about six years ago but stalled when the principal investigator left UNLV. About a year ago, Heath stepped in and has ensured it moves forward. The research includes some of Gandía García’s students who provide Spanish-English translation services to help patients and physicians at a local pediatric clinic communicate.
“Jenna has gathered data from the students, kept on top of permissions and other documentation needed for our qualitative research,” Gandía García said. She added that she expects the team to have a published article with their research results by the end of the year. “What’s amazing, is that aside from all she is doing to help me, Jenna is supporting at least 10 more professors as part of this research.”
When it comes to students, the key to Heath’s success has been her holistic approach, said Jessica Impallaria, associate director of Development & Alumni Relations in the College of Liberal Arts. Impallaria said she frequently partners with Heath, particularly when it comes to community engagement and connecting students with internship opportunities through alumni networks. Additionally, Impallaria has joined Heath in helping to guide student committees within the Dean’s Student Advisory Council.
“She’s the one students call when they need connections on campus and don’t know where to go,” Impallaria said. “She’ll then reach out and we work our connections across campus. It’s a team approach, and Jenna is at the epicenter. We don’t tell students we can’t help. We find a way to make the right connection and we don’t let go until the student is helped.”
Melikabella Shenouda is among those students. Shenouda is a psychology major, double-minoring in anthropology & Japanese, and expects to graduate spring of 2021.
“I could confide in Jenna and count on her effective guidance,” said Shenouda, who is part of Heath’s peer mentoring program. “Even though I was put in a position to mentor fellow students, I couldn’t have done it without Jenna mentoring me.”
Shenouda credits Heath for guiding her to opportunities to develop professional and leadership skills, including becoming involved as a member of the Dean’s Student Advisory Council Specialized Students Committee, and as vice president of UNLV’s Psi Chi Chapter.
“I’ve subsequently become increasingly more comfortable with public speaking and representing the college,” Shenouda said. “Jenna has been a consistent source of encouragement. I'm not surprised that she is being recognized for such a prestigious award. She is more than deserving, and is the absolute epitome of a role model.”