From the Front Row: Life as public health students during COVID-19

Published on November 12, 2020

 

The following is a transcript of an episode of From the Front Row: Student Voices in Public Health, the University of Iowa College of Public Health’s student podcast. This episode features a roundtable discussion between CPH students Steve Sonnier, Alex Murra, Luke Sampson, Megan Pospisil, Emma Meador, Oge Chigbo, Alexis Clark, and Lexi Fahrion. The group discusses how they are coping as public health students during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Steve Sonnier:
Hello, everyone. Welcome back to From the Front Row, brought to by the University of Iowa College of Public Health. My name is Steve Sonnier, and if this is your first time with us, welcome. We’re a student-run podcast that talks about major issues in public health and how they are relevant to anyone, both in and out of the field. Today, we’ll be talking with our new and returning talent at From the Front Row, and getting a glimpse into what life as a student has been like during the pandemic. With that, we’ll get into our roundtable episode here.

Steve Sonnier:
And so first off, I’d like to introduce Alex Murra. And Alex, if you want to take it from the top and just say a little bit about yourself and where you’re from?

Alex Murra:
Yeah. Hi, I’m Alex Murra and I’m from Iowa City originally. I went to the University of Iowa for a degree in microbiology before coming here. And right now I’m doing my MPH in epidemiology.

Steve Sonnier:
Luke, if you want to tee off next.

Luke Sampson:
Hello, everybody. My name is Luke Sampson. I am a second-year MPH student in the epidemiology department. I’m originally from Little Chute, Wisconsin, and I went to undergrad here at the University of Iowa and got my BS in public Health.

Steve Sonnier:
Megan, if you want to go next.

Megan Pospisil:
Hi, I’m Megan Pospisil. I am originally from the Cedar Rapids area and then went to the University of Iowa, majored in chemistry, minored in Spanish. I’m now in my second year in the MPH program in the department of epi.

Steve Sonnier:
Awesome. Emma.

Emma Meador:
Hi, I’m Emma. I am currently in my last year of undergrad getting my BS in public health and I am also a first year in the MPH in epi program. I am from a small town in Iowa called Independence.

Steve Sonnier:
Oge.

Oge Chigbo:
Hi, my name is Oge. I’m from Nigeria. I am currently doing my MPH in epidemiology. I did my undergrad at Coe College where I studied biochemistry and chemistry.

Steve Sonnier:
Great. And Alexis.

Alexis Clark:
Hi, everybody. My name’s Alexis Clark. I am currently a first-year MHA student. I am from a small town north of Springfield, Illinois. I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Health Services Management from Western Illinois University.

Steve Sonnier:
We are also joined today by Lexi Fahrion, who is an undergraduate student majoring in public health, and myself.

Steve Sonnier:
And so for today’s discussion, this is adopted from really kind of a roundtable dinner conversation that I grew up with and really enjoyed doing its highs, lows, and learns. This is just touching on what we’ve all been going through for the past couple months as students during the pandemic. And in the format of this we’re going through what we’re most grateful for right now, what the realities of the pandemic have been like for us on a day-to-day basis, and then what ultimately have we learned about ourselves and public health really since the start of the pandemic.

Steve Sonnier:
I’ll turn it first over to Alex, and we’ll start with this question one for everyone. What are you most grateful for right now?

Alex Murra:
I’m honestly most grateful for the proximity and support of my family. So this has been a very challenging time for everyone and I’ve been able to have my family in Iowa City and have that support of my parents and also my brother in overcoming any challenges that the pandemic might throw my way or even just navigating grad school as well.

Steve Sonnier:
That’s awesome. I’m envious of that, because my folks are very far away, relatively. Luke, if you want to go off next and say what you’re most grateful for.

Luke Sampson:
It’s a tough question because I feel like I’m grateful for a lot of things. There are a lot of things to be really happy about, but if I had to pick something it would probably be being able to pursue and continue my education. Essentially in the same vein, just learning more each and every day and kind of growing and learning myself and using this time to reflect on what I need to do to be a better public health professional in the future.

Steve Sonnier:
And it really is nice to be in the academic setting where it is. I think we’ve all talked about this in our different ways of we’re getting prepared for our professional career and education.

Steve Sonnier:
Megan, if you want to say what you’re most grateful for.

Megan Pospisil:
I think that in a public health setting, I’m most grateful that while it’s kind of had adverse effects, obviously, but I’m grateful that we have been able to have this learning experience during the pandemic. It’s been really interesting.

Megan Pospisil:
I work for Johnson County Public Health right now, and I feel like I’ve gotten really unique opportunities that I’m really grateful for. And then I feel like on a more personal scale, I’m really grateful for the good weather because I’ve been able to be outside a lot recently. And I really appreciate that. I feel like it helps my mental health with not being able to see your friends, really.

Steve Sonnier:
I am very thankful for the turn of weather. It was getting a little too cold, too quickly. And I’m okay with us sticking in the 60s and 70s for a couple more days, at least. Emma, what are your thoughts?

Emma Meador:
Right now I am feeling very grateful for my friends and family who have shown me love and support during these dark times. And I’m also just so grateful for public health and all they’re doing to fire at this pandemic because I think they’re doing so much and a lot of people, I just don’t think it’s really seen what they’re doing, but they’re doing so much to fight this pandemic.

Emma Meador:
And I’m so proud of people who are using their voice to really stand up for what’s going on and try to educate people on what the pandemic means, what the implications are and how we can really help fight this. So I’m just really grateful to see the fight, and the support, and the love, and the help that public health and other people are showing during these times.

Steve Sonnier:
I think we all think about public health is what’s going on in the background. And as long as things are going okay, you’re not seeing anything big or major coming into the forefront. And now, when we’ve got this pandemic that’s been ongoing, it really has thrust us into the spotlight, as it were. We’ve had so many wonderful voices on the podcast to show what’s actually going on and the hard work world we’re all putting in.

Steve Sonnier:
Oge, what are you most grateful for right now?

Oge Chigbo:
I’m most grateful for a roof over my head and food and water, just the basic necessities because I know during this pandemic it’s been really hard for a lot of people and I’m just so grateful I have access to those things despite what’s going on.

Steve Sonnier:
I just finished listening to your prior episode from last week and it is really moving to see what else is going on in other parts of the world right now and how grateful we are for the things that we’re afforded at this time.

Steve Sonnier:
Alexis, on your end, what are you most grateful for right now?

Alexis Clark:
I would say I am most grateful for my first-year MHA cohort. We all have started graduate school at such a weird time. And I know being from another state, I was worried about meeting new people and I personally didn’t know anybody before moving here. So it’s great to have that support system moving forward during the pandemic and just through grad school in general.

Alexis Clark:
While things are being held virtually, it can be rather stressful not knowing how professors are wanting things done, especially if they don’t elaborate over Zoom as they would in an in-person setting. So I would just say that support system and being able to lean on each other is key to surviving during this pandemic.

Steve Sonnier:
Yeah, it’s very critical to have that support in navigating all of this. I harken back to the first part of the pandemic when we were talking all in a group about how do we navigate these trials and tribulations? And it really was a time of coming together for our cohort.

Steve Sonnier:
Lexi, how about on your end?

Lexi Fahrion:
I would say that right now, I’m most grateful for my friends and family. They’ve really been such a great support system during all this and there’s people that I can turn to with anything.

Steve Sonnier:
And then kind of taking a turn here. What have the realities of the pandemic been like for you on a day-to-day basis? So Alex, if you want to tee that one off.

Alex Murra:
When I was thinking about this, I initially was thinking about all these different ways that my life has changed, because everyone’s life has changed a lot. I could rattle off those ways, but I don’t think that would be productive. But, I actually was realizing also that in a lot of ways, my life has been pretty consistent as to what it was before. I’m still a student. I’m still going to class. I study every day and then I try and find that schedule to make things feel normal and seem normal. Now instead of doing things in the college or in a building on campus, I’m just trying to do it at my house.

Steve Sonnier:
That’s an excellent point. The identity of you has not changed whatsoever, you are still a graduate student and I am still going on this career path into public health. And it’s just, my dad likes to say, “plot twist,” right? And that’s his way of spinning it off as a dad would do. So one day I’ll learn that.

Steve Sonnier:
Luke, what are the realities like for you in the pandemic situation?

Luke Sampson:
Recently, I felt like things are becoming a bit more normalized for me. Like going to Zoom class feels like how it’s always been, which is kind of weird to say. And I think that’s the situation for many students, I’d say.

Luke Sampson:
I’m happy that I can go to work, although I have to wear a face mask and face shield now. But I get to go in person to work, which is great.

Luke Sampson:
I will say though, there’s two sides of the coin here. So, I’m originally from Wisconsin and then obviously I’m here at the University of Iowa and both of those states, especially this fall, have seen lots of increases in cases and things like that. So communicating with family back home and friends back home in Wisconsin has been literally on a day-to-day basis relatively stressful like, “Oh, so and so was exposed.” Like, “What do we do?” Asking for my guidance in that regard.

Luke Sampson:
But on a more positive note, I’ll end with a more positive note here to kind of echo what Alex already mentioned. I feel like I do have a lot more time to myself and I feel like I have a lot more time to slow myself down. I think that pre-pandemic, I was really running myself thin and the silver lining has been understanding that I can take breaks and I can take some time for my own mental health.

Steve Sonnier:
That’s a really positive look at it. And I really appreciate that because I think that that will be one of the, again, silver linings to come out of the pandemic is really the focus on mental health and how people do need breaks. And people do need to understand that it’s okay to pause and all those things that I think sometimes get lost in the flurry of it’s graduate school, I’ve got to be fires in all irons kind of thing. That’s excellent to hear. I’m glad you’re taking care.

Steve Sonnier:
Megan, on your end, what are the realities of the pandemic for you?

Megan Pospisil:
It’s been pretty difficult I feel, which is how it is for everyone. I think that for me the hardest thing has been having self-discipline, because like most of you probably, my desk is in my room, which is next to my bed. So it’s really difficult. A lot of the time we don’t have to have our cameras on so I’m sitting in my bed or I start at the desk and I slowly, slowly move one limb at time, to the bed and then it’s the end of class I’m like, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing here?”

Megan Pospisil:
I feel like that’s been the most difficult for me personally, but kind of like what Luke said. I think it has been nice to have the time at home. I have recently adopted a dog, so it’s nice to be able to be at home with him and be able to take him on walks and play with him and stuff.

Steve Sonnier:
Emma, on your end, what are the realities of the pandemic like for you?

Emma Meador:
So honestly, it’s been kind of a period of frustration and anger. Just seeing a lot of people that I love, my friends and family and also just people all throughout the country just not following the guidance and the recommendations that public health has just tried so hard to implement and educate on. But I think it’s also showed me the importance of using my voice and helping others understand public health and the implications of not following our preventative guidelines and just like how this pandemic won’t end if we don’t all work together. If we don’t all try to social distance and wear a mask, and it’s just been a period of anger and frustration that I haven’t felt before.

Emma Meador:
And I’m learning to deal with that, but learning like how important it is and how beneficial it can be if we really just use our voice and just try to… Because a lot of people have never had to care about public health before, it’s never been something that’s had to impact them. So I think just trying to teach people and have those conversations about what public health can do and how it really can help the country and it really can help this pandemic end.

Steve Sonnier:
I think that’s a very common point with everyone is the frustration of wear a mask, social distance, the etiquette really that goes behind it. And I would echo that frustration too. It’s very hard to see folks not adhere to basic public health guidelines. It’s like wearing your seatbelt. And it is really that idea, right? The sooner that we do this, the sooner we can all get back to the normal.

Steve Sonnier:
Oge, on your end. What are the realities of the pandemic on a day-to-day basis?

Oge Chigbo:
Honestly, it feels like a long continuous day since March. So I don’t think there’s a day-to-day basis when we’ve been living the same day over and over again. But, yeah, that’s honestly all I have to say about this.

Steve Sonnier:
Alexis, if you want to chime in too with what realities of like the pandemic for you.

Alexis Clark:
Yeah, I definitely would agree with Oge in that sense that I feel like we skipped over summer and I feel like we’re right back in school. I also would mention that I think during this pandemic being self-accountable has been a huge thing, whether that’s taking your temperature before leaving your house and going through those different screenings.

Alexis Clark:
I work at the hospital so there’s lots of screenings set in place. As well as hoping other people are being accountable in the same sense, just because if someone is exposed and exposes everyone around them. There’s just a lot of uncertainty during this time, especially when you do have to go out to work or go get groceries or what have you. So it’s just important, I think, to just be as accountable for yourself as you can and just hope everyone around you is doing the same.

Steve Sonnier:
Right. And that’s especially important now and as we see the cases really skyrocketing here in Johnson County. Just trying to be as protective of each other and ourselves as possible. Lexi, what are your thoughts?

Lexi Fahrion:
I would say that I’ve definitely gotten into a routine since the start of the school year and so that’s been very nice. I’m very privileged in many ways. And one of those privileges is that I can still go to work on a daily basis. I work in a research lab where we take a lot of safety precautions, so that’s been very nice to just constantly have somewhere to go.

Lexi Fahrion:
But one of the tough things has just been losing the sense of community that really comes with being in person, especially in public health. It’s such a tight-knit major that we all know each other and it’s just nice to have that interaction on a daily basis. But I think we’ve done a good job of finding ways to do it safely over Zoom and other things like that.

Steve Sonnier:
Finally, kind of turning this into the learning component of things as well on academia. What have you really learned about yourself and public health since the start of the pandemic?

Steve Sonnier:
Alex, if you want to begin on that end.

Alex Murra:
I have learned that I am more creative than I previously gave myself credit for. I don’t know if that came from the sense of, “Oh well, I’m a scientist, so I have to look at things very analytically.” But whether that creativity has sprouted in just trying to recreate that classroom environment or keeping myself motivated or even just trying to connect with friends, because we can’t go out to have lunch or something with your friends anymore. It’s been interesting to just see myself adapt to those and overcome those challenges.

Alex Murra:
I’ve also had more time to spend with myself. So I’ve gotten a chance to reconnect with things outside of academia that I enjoy. So I’ve taken up candle making as a hobby, just something to do that I would have never done before. So, that’s kind of what I’ve learned about myself, but as far as what I’ve learned about public health, I have learned just the absolute importance of being able to communicate what we are studying.

Alex Murra:
And I think this is something that all of us have mentioned or touched on, but also being able to include your community in whatever decision that you are making. Because again, it’s easy to look at the data and be like, “Oh well, this is going to be the most effective policy and everyone’s going to follow it.” Well, they might not.

Alex Murra:
That’s been something that I’m still learning about public health and I’ve seen really great ways that people have been able to do it. So it gives me hope that eventually we’ll get this figured out. We’ll be able to come together as a community and make these changes.

Steve Sonnier:
I think the candle making thing is awesome. I very much agree, like at the beginning of this I always wanted to just, I love reading and I really wanted to go back to just reading for not school, ideally. And then also just the influx of baking. I remember that happening at the beginning of the pandemic where I was like, “I’m just going to bake sourdough, I’m going to start or…” Or all these things are going to happen.

Steve Sonnier:
It’s just one of the things that we harken back to in difficult times when they’ve arisen throughout history. There’s always this creativity that comes in to say, “What can I do differently? How can I innovate? How can I grow?” And so that’s fantastic to hear.

Steve Sonnier:
Luke, on your end, what have you learned about yourself and public health since the start of the pandemic?

Luke Sampson:
Well, first of all, I just want to shout you out for reminding everybody that we all had a bread phase during the pandemic.

Luke Sampson:
For me personally, what I’ve come to learn about myself is that my knowledge and my skillset is really valuable to those who are willing to listen. And that’s oftentimes a really hard thing to get your head around as a student. I would imagine there are a lot of students who have what we call imposter syndrome. And I think in some ways that was amplified during this, and then in a lot of ways it was curbed. And I felt a new sense of confidence in what I have learned over the past four and a half years here at the college, which has been enlightening and empowering really.

Luke Sampson:
And then as far as what I think public health as a whole has learned, kind of echoing what Alex already said, but communication is one of our most important tools. And if you see a breakdown in that, if you see a deviation from a message that can be really difficult to come back from. For example, mask wearing is probably the prime example, where you tell people not to and then you tell people to wear a mask. And it becomes really, really somehow controversial because it’s really hard sometimes for people who aren’t in our field to understand how the scientific process works and how changing and dynamic it is.

Luke Sampson:
But I guess to wrap up, I mean, and this is my own speculation. But for the field it’s really important for us to maybe at a national or a state level, to be able to tell a story and really share a narrative of what is happening and why certain, even going farther than the pandemic, why certain issues are important anecdotally and give somebody a personal connection to a problem is really helpful to have them understand what’s going on.

Steve Sonnier:
I think that’s big, the personal connection component. I think one of the quotes that I really like from one of our former producers, Ian, it was, “There’s always a story behind the person in that data.” And that’s really important that it’s not just X number of people are wearing masks, X number of people aren’t or something to that effect too. There’s value in those lives, there’s value in those stories and making sure that people understand that is a really critical component of public health communications.

Steve Sonnier:
Megan, on your end, what have you learned about yourself and public health since the start of the pandemic?

Megan Pospisil:
I feel like I’ve learned that I am more introverted than I originally thought, or maybe I’ve become more introverted, I don’t know. But yeah, initially did not have that much of a problem staying at home, especially because you have to shower less, you have to wear real clothes less, stuff like that. No, I’m just joking. I shower the same amount. But I think that that really is what I learned about myself is that I do okay to an extent with more alone time than I initially had realized and that basically wraps it up about me.

Megan Pospisil:
I think about public health, this is kind of going off of what Luke said, but I feel like when the public health is really fluid, I don’t think that it had to be before this and so that’s probably why I didn’t realize that. But I think especially when you’re working for a local public health department a lot of the times you come into work and you are communicating with the public and you’re like, “Okay, well the guidelines have changed.” Now we have to tell them a different thing, which is totally difficult because I think that is a lot of the reasons why the public loses trust, is just because like what you guys are saying, this is like science in action right now but usually it’s not under the microscope of a pandemic. Usually it’s not like every single new detail is being reported. Every single thing is being magnified. Usually it’s like science just does its thing in the background and then once we actually have results, then we tell everyone we can be conclusive.

Megan Pospisil:
I think that is what I’ve learned about public health is just the fluidity and having to adapt and just also be able to be the liaison between scientists and the public.

Steve Sonnier:
I love that analogy of the microscope and just what’s going on. It’s obviously in the science theme of everything, but it really is a testament to the evolving process that’s going on right now. And this is a novel situation for all of us that we’re going through, even though it has been nine months of going through the pandemic as a whole. We’re still figuring out new data, we’re still figuring out what this actually does and how we can best attack it and the different ways. So it is really a process in the making.

Steve Sonnier:
Emma, on your end. What have you learned about yourself and public health since the start of the pandemic?

Emma Meador:
So a quote that I’ve always been coming back to lately is something that I’ve always heard in class, but I didn’t realize the truth behind it. So just that, “When nothing is happening, public health is working.” And right now we’re in a global pandemic and with so much happening, public health isn’t working. And just that each one of us can have a voice and really make change and help make things not happen again, I guess.

Emma Meador:
I didn’t realize the voice that I can have and the ability I can have to use my skills I’ve learned in class and just through this pandemic to really make a difference.

Steve Sonnier:
Oge, on your end, what have you learned about yourself and public health since the start of the pandemic?

Oge Chigbo:
I’ve learned that I’m really resilient. I know that I’m resilient and determined, but the pandemic has just shown me how far I can go and what my limit is. Yes, I did not believe I had it in me before, but I definitely have limits.

Oge Chigbo:
And our public health, in as much as public health is or has been really underrated, the pandemic has really just shown us, I mean, the power of public health like with the whole mask, social distancing.

Oge Chigbo:
And as much as a lot of people don’t listen, I love that a lot of people have also listened and we can see from our day-to-day lives going to the grocery store now it’s normal to wear a mask. If you don’t wear a mask people are looking at you like, “What’s wrong with you?” So I think that’s really interesting and that just shows us the power of public health. Yeah, that’s honestly what I’ve learned.

Steve Sonnier:
I’ve seen that in a couple interactions with people too. I’m remembering when I was going out more at the start of the pandemic and I was wearing my mask and just walking around and I would see people giving each other thumbs up and just that positive re-encouragement of, “We’re going to make it through it, this’ll be okay.” And seeing how many people are attenuated to public health, are understanding the importance of it and really saying like, “Oh my goodness, we need to pay attention to this because something else like this could come up again and we need to be ready for it.”

Steve Sonnier:
Alexis, if you want to go and say what you learned about yourself and public health since the start of the pandemic to round us off?

Alexis Clark:
Sure. So, I think I have learned about myself that with going to Zoom University, per se, it’s very easy to get in the routine of just going with the flow. Losing sight of your goals if you’re not consciously going forth and putting that extra effort in to do a Zoom call with a professional in your field, or even just talking out group assignments over Zoom even though you probably don’t need to do that. So just making that conscious effort to stay true to yourself versus getting into that socially isolated routine.

Alexis Clark:
And then going back to what I’ve learned about public health is I have learned that it is scary how much social media and specific news outlets can dictate how people think about something so important. And to me, I think with all of the data out there, I think everyone should not have hidden agendas with why they’re spitting out specific facts or data. I think it’s frustrating when we have point blank research behind wearing masks and yet people still don’t do it. So I think the fact that social media can dictate people’s lives so much is a scary point that we’ve learned during this pandemic.

Steve Sonnier:
One of the things that I’ve seen a lot of and I’ve found myself doing is doom scrolling, is the common phrase from what I understand. It’s just you continue to go down that rabbit hole, nothing good is happening and it’s 11:00 at night and I have learned nothing useful. At the end of the day I just feel crummy.

Steve Sonnier:
I think that coming out of it, going back to, I think it was Luke’s point, about mental health and really being protective of that is vital during the pandemic. Especially in our field where we have such an importance focusing on what does the data say, what is this? We’re met with a lot of headwinds when we’re coming up against folks who are questioning what’s going on with masks, what’s going on with the virus, what’s going on with their next steps. And really just taking the time to be, again, protective of our mental health, and making sure that we’re all doing okay during this time period.

Steve Sonnier:
And Lexi, what are your thoughts on and what you’ve learned about yourself and public health since the start of the pandemic?

Lexi Fahrion:
About myself, I think I’ve learned that even though I am a pretty social person that I’m able to adapt to circumstances that I never thought would happen before. So I think that that’s been a really cool thing to learn and something that everyone is facing right now.

Lexi Fahrion:
And about public health, I think I have learned something that was kind of challenging for me is that what may seem like common sense to us doesn’t translate that way to everybody. I think that we really need to be aware of the way that we disseminate public health information and educate people in a way that really lifts them up and elevates them to doing what’s safest and what’s right. So I think that’s been one thing that we all, me especially, have learned during this.

Steve Sonnier:
Yeah. I think that’s a very good point because it’s always challenging to get the message right for everyone. So it’s always just a matter of figuring out how best to tailor things and communicate things accordingly.

Steve Sonnier:
On that end, I want to thank all of you guys for joining on today. It was really cool to hear about how everyone’s doing right now. I’m really glad that we get to showcase our new talent and our returning talent to our listeners.

Steve Sonnier:
I hope that everyone has a great rest of your day and take it easy. Take some time for yourself, go outside. It’s 70 degrees right now. Let’s enjoy it for a little bit longer before winter kicks in, as they say. So take care everyone.

Steve Sonnier:
Thanks for tuning in today. You can find us on Facebook at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, and we’re also on iTunes and Spotify as the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

Steve Sonnier:
You can go ahead and let us know what you thought about this episode and if you have any thoughts on our work, our email is cph-gradambassador@uiowa.edu. This episode was hosted, edited and produced by Steve Sonnier. This podcast is brought to you by the University of Iowa College of Public Health. Stay safe and stay healthy out there.