As Valparaiso University students, faculty, and staff approach Spring Break each year, there’s often a sense of anticipation for adventures that lie ahead. The two-week break offers opportunities to participate in educational, service-related, and cultural-immersion trips nationally and globally, to compete in athletic competition including Missouri Valley Conference Tournaments, to tour the region or the nation and delight audiences with choral performances, or to simply take a break from the hectic rush of classes, exams, and meetings.
As Spring Break 2020 drew near, however, a growing pandemic was already starting to emerge, bringing unforetold uncertainties along the way. For Valpo, this started with monitoring guidance from local, state, and federal officials. As the coronavirus pandemic spread across Asia and Europe, Spring Break trips to China, Thailand, and Italy were canceled due to safety concerns. The University then made the difficult decision to recall any students who were studying abroad in locations that reached a level 2 alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On campus, faculty, staff, and administrators quickly pulled together to prepare contingency plans for quarantines, potential transitions to remote learning, and other possible action steps to keep the campus community safe.
As each scenario was discussed, the importance of continuing the semester in the safest manner possible overruled any other considerations. This soon resulted in a number of challenging decisions, including a shift to remote learning, first for two weeks following Spring Break, then for the remainder of the semester. Athletic competitions, arts performances, and campus visits were canceled. Students were sent home, and the vast majority of faculty and staff began working remotely.
Yet, the spirit of the Valpo community remained. The first ever virtual Dance Marathon raised more than $56,000 to support Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Students presented research posters, art exhibitions, and senior design projects over Google Meet and Zoom. End-of-year departmental banquets were held remotely to celebrate students’ accomplishments. Across the country and around the world, Valpo students, alumni, faculty, and staff found ways to stay connected and give back to their communities, reinforcing what we all know to be true Valpo people are good people doing great things for the sake of the world.
There are too many wonderful stories to be told in these pages, but allow us to share just a few.
1. A Heart for Nursing
Sadie Urbanski ’17
Sadie Urbanski ’17 is a registered nurse working at Oak Grove Christian Retirement Village in DeMotte, Indiana. Her inspiration to work in health care comes from her mom, who worked in health care for more than 30 years before passing away while Sadie was a student at Valpo. “I have always had a compassion for caring for others and helping people,” Sadie says. “My heart is in nursing, I believe it is my calling. I feel blessed to be able to care for others.”
Thanks to experiences from her Valpo education, Sadie has felt equipped to handle anything she faced in nursing, even a pandemic. “Every professor and clinical instructor from Valpo’s nursing program helped me each step of the way to prepare for a career in nursing and health care. Clinical placements helped me discern which health care setting was right for me after graduation.”
Sadie knows that working with elderly populations at Oak Grove Christian Retirement Village is where her heart is, but that doesn’t mean everything is always going smoothly thanks to COVID-19.
“The most challenging aspect in long term care settings right now are the limitations to visitors during the pandemic,” Sadie says. “It is difficult on the residents. Precautions are in place to keep everyone safe, but they pay a toll on our residents and their family members.”
Teamwork is essential in nursing and health care, especially during the pandemic. In Sadie’s eyes, the most rewarding part of working on the front lines during this pandemic is seeing everyone come together to identify ways to help keep residents safe and healthy. Luckily, teamwork and support are coming from people and places besides hospitals and health care facilities.
“Many have donated food and supplies to our facility and it is greatly appreciated,” Sadie says. “The support coming from the community means so much. There are many challenges we face working in health care during the pandemic, and we are all trying our best as a team to keep everyone safe.”
2. Progress in Treatment
Nick Davidson ’17
Nick Davidson ’17 has spent the last three years working in the cardiac intensive care unit at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. The former Valpo basketball player has contributed to heart transplants, kidney transplants and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a treatment that is used for COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory distress.
“We take blood that would normally go into the patient’s lungs, put it through a massive filter and give it back to them,” Nick says. “It’s one method we can use to give our patients’ lungs a rest. It’s been interesting to see how much better we are at treating COVID-19 patients compared to where we were at the beginning of the pandemic. In the state of Indiana and across the country, we’ve gotten a lot better at recognizing the symptoms and giving people the treatment that they need.”
3. Finding Results
Anna Bockman ’20
Anna Bockman ’20 graduated during the pandemic, and she is now working hard to provide test results to individuals exposed to or showing symptoms of COVID-19. During the fall semester of her senior year, Anna sought an internship and connected with her professors to help. Shortly after, Professor Kevin Jantzi connected her with the owner of Great Lakes Lab LLC, where she worked as an intern until her graduation in May, when she was hired as full time.
Before the pandemic, the lab primarily focused on forensic testing, including drug screenings, forensic toxicology, and paternity testing. As quickly as possible in the spring, they added COVID-19 testing to their portfolio. Anna is one of the team members responsible for running swab and saliva tests. Her hours end up running long most days, but Anna doesn’t mind much.
“Everyone on the team is really close and gets along. Someone is always willing to help if you are behind on something,” Anna says. “We pride ourselves on our turnaround time for COVID-19 tests. The human connection our team has is so valuable in allowing us to care and to put in the extra time when necessary.”
In the spring of 2020, few were prepared for the marathon this pandemic would become. Initially, the mindset of lab personnel was one of getting equipment up and running as quickly as possible. “Now we are transitioning into preparing for the long haul,” Anna says. “Everyone is settling into our new routine and figuring out what is working well and how we can improve. We are all stepping up and asking ‘What can we do to help,’ and that makes a huge impact on the work environment.”
From a technical standpoint, Anna was able to identify many skills and experiences from her Valpo education that put her at an advantage with her skills in the lab. “Through undergraduate research and the labs and courses I took, I developed skills for taking notes, being prepared for procedures, and problem solving what I do if something doesn’t work. These important skills really transfer into the lab work I do now.”
4. 3D-Printed Face Shields
Daniel Blood ’10, Ph.D.; Elizabeth Wuerffel ’00, MFA; Adam Gibson-Even ’00, Ph.D.; Paul Nord ’91
During the spring 2020 semester, the situation on campus and around the world changed quickly during Valpo’s March Spring Break and following weeks. As COVID-19 cases quickly rose locally and globally, a dedicated team of Valpo faculty saw a need in the Northwest Indiana community for additional personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care professionals.
The team, composed of Daniel Blood ’10, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering; Elizabeth Wuerffel ’00, MFA, associate professor of art; Adam Gibson-Even ’00, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and astronomy; and Paul Nord ’91, laboratory technician for physics and astronomy, acted quickly, volunteering their time and resources to design, create, and deliver 3D face shields to those in need.
Thanks to the generosity and dedication of the Valpo community, the team created more than 4,500 face shields and 1,600 ear savers. These have been distributed throughout Northwest Indiana and to 150 organizations in seven other states.
5. Extra time for Masks
Ann Kessler, MFA
Ann Kessler, MFA, chair of the theatre department, used the increase in her free time this spring to put her love of costume design to new use. She constructed scrub hats and masks to help offset PPE shortages in many hospitals in Northwest Indiana and Chicago.
“I have a number of friends who work in emergency rooms and intensive care units,” Professor Kessler says. “I want to do what I can to support them and their colleagues.”
6. Real-Life Application
Richard Sévère, Ph.D.
The transition to remote instruction this spring was quick and challenging for many. Some faculty, like Richard Sévère, Ph.D., associate professor of English, found ways to incorporate the pandemic into the classroom in his professional writing courses.
“I asked students to imagine themselves in leadership roles within businesses in their communities,” Professor Sévère says. “In these leadership roles, they came up with innovative ideas that could help their local companies stay open and thrive during moments of such uncertainty.”
With his guidance, students generated creative ideas — beyond prescribed federal safety guidelines — and wrote proposals to articulate those ideas to the businesses’ employees, the press, as well as marketing materials for the general public. The project provided an opportunity for students to support their family business, previous and current employers, and places they frequently patronize.
“The project was meant to simulate a ‘real-time’ scenario that encouraged students to consider the impact of leadership, effective writing and communication, creativity, and critical thinking,” Professor Sévère says. All skills that will support students in their lives and careers in the future.
7. Can I Do It?
Katelyn Stermer ’14 Donnelly, MPH
Katelyn Stermer ’14 Donnelly, MPH, and fellow volunteer epidemiologists developed COVID-Can I Do It?, an interactive database for people to ease their way back into normalcy, while recognizing risks in their given location. Katelyn’s journey proves that a commitment to volunteering can lead to professional avenues and vocations.
On the COVID-Can I Do It? website, participants are prompted to choose their activity from a list of options, which then presents a risk level from one to five based on their exact location. The risk level, developed by Katelyn and her team of volunteer epidemiologists, is based on crowding, droplets, amount of time the given activity takes, and ventilation. The website may suggest times in which the risk level will be lower for specific activities. Katelyn says, “Having this pandemic is disturbing in that we hope our systems are strong enough to prevent this.” Even if the system failed, there are people like Katelyn who are strong enough to combat it.
Infectious disease prevention is a passion of Katelyn’s, and she realizes her journey to get there has been anything but narrow. “My path is a winding road, and I am getting led to something with infectious disease purely through a volunteer opportunity. I put myself out there, and I am on the road to my dream job,” Katelyn says.
With no plans to slow down in the near future, Katelyn says the team is scaling up, as she begins work on development in Canada. Not far from her home base in Buffalo, New York, she is able to connect with peers at The University of Toronto to make the tool available outside of the United States. With ongoing outreach in other countries, COVID-Can I Do It? is growing, and the current team is looking to add extra minds to assist with the tool’s advancement.
“I really see the need for a cadre of volunteers to fill those gaps until long term solutions can be enacted,” Katelyn says. “Being involved in giving back to your community, I feel, not only makes you a more compassionate, open-minded, and responsive individual, but it really is an investment that will generate improvements everyone can benefit from.”
8. Maxed Out
Tristan De La Rosa ’18
Tristan De La Rosa ’18 serves as an emergency-room nurse in Garden Grove, California, at the largest trauma hospital in Orange County, located next to Disneyland. The former Valpo football player has worked at least four shifts per week since the beginning of March 2020, including 10 16-hour shifts. At one point, he worked 11 shifts consecutively.
“At the height of the pandemic, our whole hospital was maxed out, so we had to hold patients in the ER,” Tristan says. “We had patients in the lobby, and we did everything we could because the hospital was completely full with nowhere to place them. We were putting up tents and rolling out tarps. Our staff members couldn’t see their families, but fortunately I live on my own so I didn’t have to worry about that. It was also very sad that we couldn’t allow patients’ family members to come in, but we had to do everything we could to keep them safe.”
9. Finding a Why
Shelly Warren ’18
Shelly Warren ’18 did not expect serving her community through health care would ever look like this. Her passion to help others heal did not prepare her for the physical and emotional toll that COVID-19 would wreak on communities locally and abroad. Less than two years after her graduation from Valpo she found herself alongside health care professionals around the world wearing N95 masks for 13 hours, and witnessing multiple deaths from the virus in less than 24 hours.
“This was not ‘the why’ that drove me to nursing,” Shelly says. “In a few weeks, we went from healing to hospice. We have patients whose families are not allowed at their bedside, and families who call crying, stating they don’t believe their parent or sister is gone.”
Through all the chaos, Shelly found she had a new “why.”
“I now have the privilege of being at bedside in a patient’s last moments,” Shelly says. “The privilege of holding their hand as they go meet Jesus. The privilege of providing love and comfort in dark times. I think often of a particular Bible verse, Isaiah 61:1–2. ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me … He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted … to comfort all who mourn.’”
10. The Lighter Side
Jennifer Hora, Ph.D.
Jennifer Hora, Ph.D., professor of political science, is one of Valpo’s faculty who chose to deliver all her classes remotely in fall 2020. After creating and delivering “Emergency Remote Learning Supplies” (bags of candy) to some of her daughter’s K–12 friends, the joyful and grateful reception of the gifts inspired Professor Hora to recreate the experience for her students.
Her traditional first-day-of-class activity includes a trivia game, that rewards participants — no matter if their answer was correct — with candy to demonstrate that participating is rewarding. She conducted an online discussion around current events, and it was successful across all her classes. However, Professor Hora was sad not to be sharing candy, especially since she had previously taught many of the students in her upper-level courses.
With her normal candy treat dispensation disrupted by online class delivery, she turned to her family RV. Regularly used for family vacations and camping, Jennifer packed the RV with a card table, her face covering, and individually wrapped candy treats and settled in an empty parking lot on campus. The physically distanced treat table was a hit among her students, with many stopping to chat and catch up.
“It was meaningful to those that were able to make it. In general, it makes my family laugh when we drive places you don’t normally see an RV and people gawk,” Professor Hora says. “Driving on campus was the ultimate version of this!”
11. Treating Anxiety
Kayla Krueger ’20
Kayla Krueger ’20 works as a nurse on the behavior floor of OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center in Champaign, Illinois. The former Valpo women’s golfer has seen the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of her patients.
“I work most often with mentally ill patients as opposed to physically ill patients, so the impact on my work has been different,” Kayla says. “All of the time in isolation and quarantine has caused many patients’ anxiety and depression to skyrocket. Some patients are fearful of the virus, some are distressed about the social isolation and others have financial related stress due to the pandemic. Our job is to help them get back on their feet. We also work with social workers to help our patients find jobs and find ways they can improve their mental health outside of our hospital setting.”