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EH Heroes in the time of COVID-19: Jamie Hisel

May 4, 2020

Jamie Hisel, MPH is a faculty member and undergraduate program advisor in the Environmental Health Science Department at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). Jamie has been a member of NEHA for four years, and she currently serves as president of the Association of Environmental Health Academic Programs (AEHAP). In her interview, Jamie discusses the unique challenges that COVID-19 has brought for universities and the students that they support.

Jamie ends her interview with some thoughts on the importance of resiliency and hope. In her words, "Now, more than ever, the world is seeing first-hand the impact the environment has on our health. This virus has quite literally shut the world down, and people can now see that EH is on the frontlines fighting this thing head-on to make a better tomorrow."

How has Eastern Kentucky University responded to the COVID-19 crisis?

EKU responded quickly to the COVID-19 crisis. Fortunately, the university was on spring break the second week of March when things became more critical and we were able to act quickly to negate having all students return to campus after many had been traveling all over the U.S. I can only imagine what may have happened had we postponed moving to an online format and allowed many students to return to campus. The results could have been devastating for our county. We have a strong administration and a coronavirus taskforce was quickly put together in February to address the issues and make the best decisions to move forward for the campus.

What does a workday look like for you since the onset of COVID-19 in Kentucky?

The workday has changed significantly as I am now working entirely from home. I have tried to keep a regular schedule, however, I have found I am working a lot more. Many nights and weekends, I am answering emails, helping students with blackboard issues, advising, reading discussion board posts, reopening quizzes, exams, zoom sessions, creating lecture videos, the list goes on and on. It seems never-ending at times, but we are all making sacrifices, and, above all, I want to be there for my students.

While I am thankful we live in a time in which virtual learning is possible, it has definitely been challenging for me to quickly adjust my classes and switch to an online format. I always strive to give my students the very best instruction possible and I did not want that to change just because of the current circumstances. I wanted to still provide my students with clear, meaningful, and engaging lecture material while being sensitive to the unique challenges they may be facing in this time of uncertainty. I wanted them to learn the material, but also not overload them with excessive amounts of work. It has been a delicate balance, but I have already gotten some positive interaction and feedback from my students.

On a more positive note, this time has given me an opportunity to improve my course structure, be more creative in developing assignments, and allowed me to become more familiar with many different forms of technology that I had not used previously. For many months, I had longed for a chance to "slow-down" and work on my courses and this time has allowed me to do so.

Please tell us about your experience supporting and advising students during this time.

I am the advisor for all our undergraduate EHS students, and this is usually the busiest time of the year for me. March/April is our advising period and so I normally have students in and out of my office all day, every day for weeks helping them plan out their schedules, finalize internships, figure out how to pass their classes, or helping them figure out what they want to do for the rest of their life. This is one of the best parts of my job – I love working one-on-one with students, so not being able to have my traditional face-to-face meetings has been tough. While phone calls and zoom sessions are adequate, it is not the same. Some of my students are struggling, and I hate that I cannot be there for them like I normally would. I worry about how they are doing and if they have the resources they need to get the work done. I do not want this to put them behind and discourage them from continuing in the degree program. While the university has tried to put resources in place to support students, this is new territory for all of us and sometimes it just isn't enough. Online learning isn't for everyone, and I fear it is going to impact our most vulnerable students the most.

What can NEHA, and other professional associations, do to help EH professionals and students through this crisis?

At this point, one of the main ways NEHA, other professional associations, and EH professionals can help students is by providing virtual internship opportunities. The majority of our students complete their internships over the summer and many who already had internships secured, are now no longer able to complete those due to the COVID-19 crisis. I know this is not unique to EKU and is going to be impacting all our programs and students. I know EHAC and NEHA are already trying to address some of these issues and I am confident they will be able to provide something meaningful for our students. While nothing can truly replace a traditional internship, I do not want this to place undue hardship on our students and prolong their graduation date.

What long term effects do you think COVID-19, and the related response, will have on colleges and universities?

The COVID-19 crisis and related response are going to have a huge impact on our colleges and universities. Higher education has already taken so many hits in recent years and my fear is that this will have irrecuperable damages. In addition, things are still so uncertain, that we don't fully know if or when we will be able to go back to a traditional format. We hope that we will be able to return in the fall, but will that really be possible?

A lot of students are frustrated and do not like the changes, so if we are unable to return to normal in the fall, will this cause them to not register? If we don't have students registered for classes, we are not going to be able to sustain the university when there are already so many budget shortfalls. There are so many unknowns in the world today and it is a very scary time for higher education.

While times are uncertain, higher education has faced tough times before. We are resilient and we will recover from this, but it is going to take time and a lot of hard work and dedication. After all, we need to train the next generation of professionals, especially in the EH field. Now, more than ever, the world is seeing first-hand the impact the environment has on our health. This virus has quite literally shut the world down, and people can now see that EH is on the frontlines fighting this thing head-on to make a better tomorrow.