Student researchers explore Creighton University’s COVID experience
Documenting “lessons learned,” a staple of military after-battle analysis, found a useful civilian expression last year when a coalition of students reviewed Creighton University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They wanted to learn how those students fared during the 2020-2021 academic year who were required by pandemic protocols to quarantine or otherwise self-isolate, what concerns they experienced, how they rated Creighton’s COVID policies, and how those policies might be improved.
The investigation emerged from the recruitment of social work students by Creighton’s Student Health Services to work as contact tracers.
Cathy Fox, MSW, assistant professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies, says social work undergraduates possess skills pertinent to reaching out and monitoring psychosocial needs, so they were natural participants.
“Student Health was interested in learning more about the experience of quarantine and isolation, so we signed on and then enlisted our colleagues in medical anthropology to help with the research piece,” she says.
The research was led by six interdisciplinary students under the direction of Fox; Laura Heinemann, PhD, associate professor and director of the medical anthropology undergraduate program; Angela Maynard, then-associate director of student health education; Alexander Roedlach, PhD, professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies; and Monica White, MSW, assistant professor of cultural and social studies and director of Creighton’s social work program.
Titled “Learning from Times of Restriction: College Student Experiences of Stressors and Supports in COVID Quarantine/Isolation,” the project demonstrated the importance of bringing students together from different disciplines — in this case, social work, medical anthropology, neuroscience and health administration and policy.
“Students learned if you want to succeed in life you have to collaborate with people who have a different academic and professional background,” Roedlach says. “We are all good at something, and we have to bring these things together.”
The collaboration found that quarantined students were concerned about their personal health and well-being but also that of their peers. Some worried that online learning might impair their academic progress, while others regretted missing the social experiences that are an important part of university life.
Others, in contrast, valued the opportunity to catch up on sleep or to pursue their studies quietly without interruption by a roommate.
“Just the experience of being isolated and having to be in a space by yourself, or with just a small number of people, in itself became a source of stress for some students,” Heinemann says. “But for those who were able to quarantine or isolate in their own homes, who mentioned having good support from their family, friends, and professors, for them it was sometimes an opportunity to recharge.”
While understanding that pandemics can arrive without warning, the survey nonetheless found that future response planning could benefit from greater student involvement.
Alissa Jeffrey (pictured above), a junior in medical anthropology, and Anna Kotula, a senior in biology and medical anthropology, were among six students involved in the project, the others being Chloe Cassens, BA’22; Jamaica Dulluog, a junior in health administration and policy; Megan Loh, a senior in neuroscience; and Thea Pflum, BA’21. Others lending a hand were Chelsea Riediger, BSW ’21 and Holly Stokes, BSW ’21.
Jeffrey and Kotula presented a research poster summing up their findings at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association held in Seattle in November 2022. Presenting at the largest conference of anthropologists in the United States was a weighty challenge, and although Roedlach stood ready to assist, he says the students fared well without him.
Jeffrey, in partnership with Heinemann, also gave an oral presentation.
“Going to the American Anthropological Association Conference in Seattle was inspiring,” she says. “I was captivated by the variety of projects there, and I loved being able to meet fellow students and professional anthropologists.”
For Loh, whose classes in biology taught her about the mechanisms of the COVID-19 virus, the opportunity to explore the pandemic’s social impact was a rare opportunity.
“Seeing this research come together before my own eyes has been a one-in-a-million chance to learn more about the communities I belong to as well as the communities I wish to serve in the near future,” she says.
For Kotula, the opportunity to attend a major professional conference proved ample reward for time invested.
“I highly valued networking opportunities, listening to other presentations, and engaging with other students from various universities,” she says. “Seattle also had many cultural and educational opportunities to experience. I am forever thankful for this opportunity with my classmates and professors.”