By Lini S. Kadaba
The challenges of COVID-19 this last year threatened to upend a hallmark of an Alvernia University education—experiential learning. But a combination of creativity and tenacity on the part of university leaders and its students ultimately led to many rich, even eye-opening opportunities.
“I think students had transformational experiences because of the times, … a global pandemic,” said Alvernia's Director of Career Development Megan Adukaitis, who helped students find alternative internships. “It was a true real-world experience.”
Many students also continued to volunteer, meeting the greater need. “Service is the backbone of who we are at Alvernia,” said Alyssa Slade '14 MA'16, assistant director for Alvernia's Holleran Center for Community & Global Engagement. “Participating in meaningful service experiences helps to develop conscious servant leaders, and our students stepped up.”
During the height of the pandemic, volunteer EMT Joseph Zoppi '21 was paged almost daily to help the stretched-thin emergency medical services in his hometown of Parsippany, N.J., often abruptly leaving his classes on Zoom to respond to calls, most related to COVID-19.
“When I hear them go ‘second request' and no one is available, I feel obligated to do something about it,” said the 21-year-old nursing major who recently started as an ICU nurse at the Clara Maass[CQ] Medical Center in Belleville, N.J.
In April, 2021, Zoppi won the Holleran Center Outstanding Service Award for more than 2,000 hours of service during college—most as a volunteer EMT and nearly half from what he called “life-altering” work on the COVID-19 front lines as a junior.
When occupational therapy students struggled to find clinical fieldwork during the pandemic, telehealth technology helped them partner with the Respire Haiti clinic.
“It became apparent to students when observing the occupational therapists and patients via telehealth the number of barriers that patients in Haiti must overcome and the impact on health outcomes,” said Alvernia Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy Gregory Chown, who led the effort to collaborate with Faculté des Sciences de Réhabilitation de Léogâne in Haiti along with Selena Ehlert, Alvernia's occupational therapy clinical fieldwork coordinator.
Students observed patients at the clinic, learned to fabricate positioning equipment from wood, buckets and other basic materials and engaged in the assessment of a child with cerebral palsy.
The profound experience led OT students to raise more than $1,600 for Respire Haiti.
In the fall of 2020, criminal justice major Alexus Perez '21 of Reading struggled to find an internship, striking out with police departments and store security details because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Ultimately, Alvernia helped him land at the nonprofit YMCA's Camp Joy, a transitional housing program for men involved with the Berks County criminal justice system and recovering from substance use disorder. Perez, 23, observed case managers and client meetings and wrote reports on house meetings, gaining insights into the personal struggles that can lead to criminal activities. That will serve him well as he pursues police work, he said.
Before, “I saw someone as a criminal for what they did,” Perez said. “At Camp Joy, I saw someone as struggling and needing a lot of help. It gave me a different perspective.”
Kyra Connolly '24 is a busy volunteer, recognized by the Holleran Center for more than 100 hours of service two academic years in a row. When the pandemic hit after her freshman alternative spring break, during which she helped those experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C., the OT major in the five-year master's program only redoubled her commitment.
“I felt there was more necessity to volunteer,” said Connolly, 20, of Marlton, N J. “It was such a hard time for everyone. Nothing was normal.”
In her sophomore year, her volunteer work included data entry for COVID-19 vaccination clinics and connecting with senior citizens in the Foster Grandparent Program via Zoom. She accumulated another 100 hours of service and then some, and again won the Holleran Center's service award.
When the pandemic unfolded, Hope Andrews '22, an early childhood and special education double major, didn't expect to continue interacting with schoolkids through the Reading Youth Initiative (RYI), where she was an after-school tutor.
But, she said, the example the Holleran Center set, adapting and helping students continue to serve, inspired her. “I wanted to be that person for the students we tutored and the families we were able to reach in the community,” said the 21-year-old from Pleasant Valley, N.Y.
Andrews not only virtually tutored students, learning Google Classrooms, but helped pilot an Alvernia Check and Connect after-school program for middle schoolers that introduced students to college and careers via the RYI's new partnership with Southern Middle School.
“I'm so proud of what we were able to do,” she said, “and the perseverance we were able to have.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of the Alvernia Magazine.