Supporting students and community through the pandemic has been top priority for SPH Academic Services team

By Sally Crocker

Academic Services Sm
Dr. Misty Smethers, Dr. Tessa Bryan, Siarra Azocar and Chelsea Lancaster

One year ago, COVID-19 turned the world upside down.

Before the pandemic arrived, the HSC School of Public Health Academic Services department was in the usual zone, providing day-to-day resources and support to students, managing weekly “SPH Interlude” events with guest speakers and conversations around special topics, advising on internships and community service opportunities and partnering with alumni and others in the field to keep students alerted to job openings and career updates.

Not to mention planning course schedules, collaborating with faculty and leadership on school-related issues, and preparing for spring commencement.

It is always busy for this four-person department and the graduate assistants who provide support, but the changes and challenges of COVID-19 were much more than anyone could have predicted.

Along with Assistant Professor and department Director Misty Smethers, EdD, MAE, the SPH Academic Services team includes Assistant Directors Tessa Bryan, EdD, MBA, and Chelsea Lancaster, MLS, and Senior Administrative Associate Siarra Azocar.

Spring 2020 was a flurry of Zoom meetings and need-to-know communications. Classes went virtual. With so many variables that COVID could present, the department developed options for fall classes either back on campus, remote or in hybrid modules.

Pandemic shutdowns were daunting for everyone, especially students living on their own. Those at home with roommates, families, pets and the balancing of schedules and workspaces with others also felt the challenge. All were concerned about friends and relatives in other households, especially those far away.

Serving the community

“As we were transitioning, Tarrant County Public Health sent out a call for help. At least 60 volunteers were needed immediately for COVID contact tracing – and orientation was one week away,” Dr. Smethers said. “With help from Human Resources and others across campus, our students quickly moved through background checks, onboarding and team assignments to be there.”

Student internships at professional practice sites around North Texas also were impacted as local agencies closed, reopened and closed again in response to COVID case numbers. This called for ongoing communications and personal check-ins to be sure everyone was doing okay.

Students were also updated on the campus food pantry, funding resources, the HSC CARE team and other assistance.

The department was inventive in welcoming new students and keeping mid-semester spirits high in 2020, with surprise gift boxes mailed to their homes, containing HSC items, handwritten notes and other goodies.

“We wanted our connection with students to stay strong, even when we couldn’t all be face-to-face,” Dr. Smethers said.

It’s an understatement to say spring rolled into summer, then moved into fall and now the current semester, as the responsibilities of departments like SPH Academic Services are nonstop and involve detailed, daily coordination with others across campus and outside HSC to support Recruitment and Admissions, help new students get acclimated and feel welcomed, and support them through their graduate program.

“Striving for excellence in communication and organization was our focus throughout, to ensure students had the best experience despite 2020 uncertainties in our country. A commitment to students’ well-being is very important to our team and the work we do,” Azocar said.

Over the last year, SPH Academic Services organized more than 125 online Interlude programs – 5 to 8 per week – covering not just educational, career-related and public health topics, but also activities focused on self-care and stress relief.

“We were looking for unique opportunities to stay engaged with our students on a virtual platform, including those we had not yet been able to meet in person,” Lancaster explained. “Wellness sessions like virtual yoga, a virtual pet café and a movie watch party helped us all connect.”

Moving forward together

The most stressful months came last summer, with COVID cases high and the nation embroiled in uncertainty.

“June was a month of questions and anxiety,” Dr. Smethers remembered. “Coronavirus cases were rising, and our students were concerned with the state of the country and in need of support.”

“They were worried about pandemic safety, being separated from their families and the desire to participate in peaceful protests and speak out for equality for our faculty, staff and students of color, while feeling fearful of hate speech and negative rhetoric as they also balanced the expectations of graduate school. This was the month of tears.”

Staying strong together through crucial conversations and events highlighting Juneteenth, Pride Week and DE&I initiatives went a long way in helping students and HSC colleagues talk openly about concerns and the path forward.

The department also maintained close connections with alumni, who were facing those same challenges in their lives.

Reflections are important for both looking back and moving ahead, and SPH provided a space for that as well as the 2020-year ended. Students shared their wins and perspectives from a very challenging time with Academic Services staff, the Dean, Associate Dean Dr. Tracey Barnett and cohorts at a virtual End of Year event leading into 2021.

The victories large and small from an unprecedented time in history continue to serve as testament to the strength and resiliency of HSC students and the staff and faculty who support them.

“Our office is committed to serving our students because we care about them. Whether it’s reassuring students or helping them find the resources they need, we are here to help. Their success is a victory for Academic Services,” Dr. Bryan said.

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