Public health students reflect on year since Western shifted to distance learning

Contact: Erin Flynn
A collage of students wearing masks on campus.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—It has been a full year since the growing COVID-19 pandemic changed the world and shifted Western Michigan University to distance learning. Over those 365 days, the community has experienced losses, dramatic change, isolation and uncertainty, but the period has also been a time of hope, innovation, resilience and adaptation.

A masked student plays the trombone.

A year of resilience, innovation

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"When I heard the governor talking during a press conference on the radio about how it's been a year since Michigan's first COVID-19 case … I literally had to pull over the car because the tears started to flow," says Dr. Robert Bensley, undergraduate public health program coordinator. "(It was) all of the loss and angst and hope and frustration and the realization that it's been a year."

Bensley and his public health students have been actively involved in the University's response from the very beginning, offering both expertise in the field and a student perspective on pandemic communications.

"It's gone full circle from the initial, 'What is this?' A year ago we had no idea what (COVID-19) was; mask-wearing wasn't even a thing. We didn't know all the symptoms or exactly how it spread," Bensley says. "Now, a year later, the students are working at a vaccine clinic and they've been part of the process since the onset of the pandemic in Michigan."

"The pandemic has brought about a ton of different opportunities, lots of learning, but also it's just heartbreaking at the same time," says senior public health student Camryn Giem, who lost her grandfather during the pandemic.

Recently, she received a call to schedule her vaccination as a restaurant worker.

"As I was walking through the vaccine clinic, it was surreal to think a year ago we were barely feeling the effects of the pandemic. Then in a matter of weeks, we were in the thralls," she says. "So to just be there experiencing it … made me really excited and feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel after a year of worry."

The Beginning

Two students and Dr. Robert Bensley

Dr. Robert Bensley and public health students meet with members of the Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications in March 2020.

The University began monitoring an emergent coronavirus in China in late January 2020. At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the risk of the general American public contracting the disease was low. Just a little more than a month later, on Tuesday, March 10, Michigan identified its first two positive cases of COVID-19. Western announced the transition to distance education the following day, with classes moving to a virtual setting Monday, March 16. 

"We contacted the Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications and said, 'Can we help?' And since then, our public health students have been engaged in real work and been an essential arm of the University in a lot of ways," Bensley says. Opportunities for his students to get involved snowballed from there. "Everybody I asked, 'Can we be part of that?' told me, "Absolutely. That's why we're an institution. If we can give these students opportunities to learn and they can help, then we can certainly involve them.'"

The weekend before distance learning began, Bensley's public health students met with Tony Proudfoot, vice president for marketing and strategic communications, and Dr. Jennifer Bott, provost and vice president for academic affairs. Along with the University's Medical Director, Dr. Gayle Ruggiero, Bott and Proudfoot co-chaired the WMU COVID-19 Response Task Force, which the University created at the outset of the pandemic.

"What strikes me a lot is how much we've grown in the past year as public health professionals," says Giem. "Last year there was a feeling of, 'I'm in the room, but I don't know if I belong here.' The experience was scary and exciting. We had some of the skills and we had to (put them to the test). Now a year later, we're comfortable using them."

The public health cohort hit the ground running, spearheading a social media campaign to educate students about the virus and important safety measures to mitigate the spread.

"Knowing what we were going to do was going to bring other students comfort also brought me a lot of comfort, just seeing the possibility of including student voices," says senior public health student Kylie Wiseman. "It seemed so small at the time, but I realized later how big of a deal it was and how it set the tone for all the projects we've been doing since then."

The COVID-19 Student Coalition shares important information on social media to encourage safe practices among students.

Over the summer, public health senior Alison Yelsma teamed up with chemistry graduate student Melanie Mitchell to create the COVID-19 Student Coalition, recruiting other public health students to brainstorm ways to promote safety and keep their peers up to date on important information related to the pandemic.

"A lot of efforts we did with social media in the coalition, just getting information out and increasing health literacy, is something I always knew was really important. But it's something I've realized I actually want to work on after graduation now," Yelsma says.

She and the other students in her public health cohort became certified contact tracers at the beginning of fall semester. They volunteered their time to help Sindecuse Health Center identify potential COVID-19 exposures on campus and inform students who needed to isolate or quarantine. Their efforts filled more than 50% of the needed contact-tracing shifts during the fall.

"It hadn't hit me that what we were doing was unique until the person who was taking my temperature (when I showed up to volunteer at Sindecuse) asked me why I was there," says Yelsma, who learned the person she was talking to was a retired nurse who chose to go back to work during the pandemic. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, everyone from every corner of our community is coming together to help.' That's not true in every community, and I'm really happy we have that with our public health group."

Coming 'Full Circle'

Public health students are now working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments to monitor disease mitigation practices and also help with vaccination efforts.

Giem is co-coordinator of the Mask Adherence Surveillance at Colleges and Universities Project (MASCUP) on Western's campus. She and 16 other students monitor mask usage on campus and identify opportunities for improvement. So far, it appears messaging is working—the percentage of the Western community seen wearing masks appropriately is consistently among the highest of participating institutions.

Giem is also among a handful of public health students hired by Western alumna Danielle Persky, deputy health officer for the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department, to help facilitate vaccine clinics in rural areas. Wiseman worked at her first clinic last week.

Public health students' efforts were recognized by the state's top health officials.

"Most of the population we saw was elderly, and I was the first person they came to after they got their vaccination," she says. "Every single person, you could see a big smile on their face, even under their mask, and it was so inspiring and heartwarming."

Those practical experiences in the field will set this cohort of public health students apart from all the others Bensley has worked with at Western.

"I've been here nearly 30 years and I've never had that opportunity to do something so focused. We've had opioid epidemics and food access issues and other public health needs but not a pandemic," he says. "Being able to get public health students involved from stage one to the end, mirroring the needs that evolved due to the pandemic, is amazing. They'll walk out of here and interview for jobs having been a part of real-life projects, including a national project with the CDC—not just classwork or theoretical concepts but real work in the field. I am so proud of these students and their willingness to step up to the plate and take action."

Giem is already seeing the fruits of her labor as she looks beyond graduation in June.

"Within the past year, my confidence has grown so much," she says. "I just had a job interview where I answered every question with something that I did related to COVID-19 through the public health program, and it made me think, 'Okay, I do have the type of skills and experiences employers are looking for.'"

"Understanding I can do it, I can go out into the real world and know what I'm talking about, I wouldn't trade that for anything," adds Wiseman.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.