COVID-19 pandemic strengthens health care students' commitment to serve

The coronavirus pandemic hasn't just transformed how students take classes or engage in campus life; it's also fundamentally affected how some students regard their chosen fields of study, solidifying a commitment to careers in public health and health care.

In a few short months, students in the health sciences have watched as previously obscure public health agencies and experts have been transformed into household names. They've also seen countless images of heroic health care workers flood the media.

Ashley Nguyen, Mariam Sylla and Liza Matthew walk on campusView print quality image
Mariam Sylla, center, walks to class with fellow students, Ashley Nguyen and Liza Matthew. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

"Before the pandemic, nobody even knew what an epidemiologist was; now everyone thinks they're one," said Thomas Duszynski, director of epidemiology education at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI. More seriously, he added, "it's really drawn in an intense interest to the field."

At Fairbanks, this interest is already reflected in the numbers. The school has seen a significant increase in graduate and professional students, with a 17 and 23 percent rise in enrollment over the past year, respectively. Undergraduate education has also experienced a notable bump, rising 2 percent over the past year. Enrollment in the school's recently launched online epidemiology program -- one of only a handful in the country -- has rocketed to 110 students this academic year, compared to about 50 the year of its launch in 2018-19.

"The pandemic has really increased my motivation and sense that this career is the right choice for me," said Mariam Sylla, a Fairbanks School of Public Health graduate who began her first semester as a master's degree student in public health at the school this fall. "Public health is about our everyday lives, and how it is important to educate the population. Until a cure is found, public health professionals are coming up with the solutions for prevention ... wearing a mask, disinfecting areas and social distancing are all practices of public health."

At the start of the pandemic, Sylla was one of several IUPUI students who immediately felt the call to help. She created a social media page called "Indy COVID relief" with information about how to access masks, transportation and job application support, and ways to help elders in the community. She also served as a French translator for Indianapolis residents who needed assistance to access local services.

"I chose this career because I understand the need for us to be a better world, and it starts with public health," Sylla said. "I'm so glad I chose to continue this path at IUPUI because the faculty and staff are so knowledgeable, have connections and care for students' growth and success."

Emma KnoxView print quality image
Emma Knox. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

At the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, where undergraduate enrollment has risen 4 percent, students have also found inspiration and resolve amidst the pandemic.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely emphasized the importance of public health in society," said Jayana Hammonds, a freshman at IU Bloomington who discovered public health during her senior year in high school, where she enrolled in a biomedical innovation class through Project Lead The Way.

Hammonds said the pandemic encouraged her to narrow her focus to the field of epidemiology, out of a desire to learn more about how disease spreads, as well as to understand why certain communities are hit harder than others.

"I'm very interested in studying how this pandemic has disproportionately affected underprivileged communities and people of color," she said. "COVID-19 has really uncovered the underlying injustices that exist in the U.S health care system. I hope to be involved with how we address these issues."

Also a freshman at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, Emma Knox said her interest in infectious disease and epidemiology has roots in an earlier disease outbreak -- the 2014 emergence of Ebola in West Africa -- which occurred when she was 12.

"Seeing all of the devastation on the news motivated me to understand how people were fighting to stop the epidemic," she said. "I discovered that epidemiologists and other public health experts play a large role in preventing and stopping outbreaks like Ebola. I knew that I wanted to be one of the people researching viruses and putting together prevention plans."

But it's the COVID-19 pandemic that drove home the importance of public support and funding for public health organizations, she added.

"When public health is properly funded and prioritized, these institutions are able to provide crucial supplies, testing, support and education to the community," Knox said. They're also "better positioned to slow or prevent the next outbreak."

Jayana HammondsView print quality image
Jayana Hammonds. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Beyond public health, IU's nursing program is also experiencing headwinds amidst the pandemic, with undergraduate enrollment rising 2 and 9 percent over the previous year at IU Bloomington and IUPUI, respectively. Moreover, IU's nursing program at IU Fort Wayne marked a milestone this academic year: preparing to graduate the first class of students who enrolled in the program. Overall, IU Fort Wayne has experienced a staggering 30 percent increase in overall health science enrollment compared to 2018-19.

"Nurses on the front line of the pandemic are inspirational, and remind our students about the critical role of nurses during a medical crisis, and in promoting public health," said Christopher Lance Coleman, associate dean and professor of nursing at IU Fort Wayne.

Although nurses always "serve as a lifeline to families whose loved ones are hospitalized," he added, this role is especially powerful during the COVID-19 pandemic since contagiousness prevents people from visiting individuals with the disease.

"Our students seek to be a part of this great responsibility -- and calling -- during this public health crisis," he said.

One of those students is Amy Vail, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing student at IU Fort Wayne. She said she was inspired to enter the field after years staying at home full time with her young children, and after witnessing the difference that a good nurse made in her father's recovery from triple bypass surgery.

She said the coronavirus had shown her that nurses play a critical role not only in the care of patients, but in ensuring proper infection control and best practices within each hospital unit.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has shown (nursing) to be a profession full of difficult decisions, compassion, strength, grit, empathy and more," she said. "It's brought stories of courageous nurses, nurses who have been pushed to their limits, and nurses who have worked together to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

"It's a difficult profession, especially during a pandemic, but it's also clearer than ever the rewards are invaluable."