Sally Ann Swearingen and her team of five interior design seniors inside one of the safe learning environment classrooms on the SFA campus

Sally Ann Swearingen, far right, associate professor of interior design at Stephen F. Austin State University, assembled a team of five interior design seniors to help ensure safe learning environments for their fellow students when SFA reopens this fall. From left, Brooke Ward of Dallas, Cristel Perez and Osiel Mireles of Houston, April Cooper of Huntington and Miriam Amador of Lufkin spent the summer taking measurements, inventorying furniture and technological equipment, and documenting elements ranging from electrical outlets to floor, baseboard, wall and ceiling materials for nearly 400 rooms across campus to produce detailed floor plans for each SFA department and school. Their floor plans indicate how to arrange furniture to help ensure compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention physical distancing guidelines. They also produced spreadsheets with data to guide faculty members on the number of students allowed in each learning environment. Photo by Robin Johnson

NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Keeping the safety of their fellow students in mind when the campus opens this fall, five interior design seniors at Stephen F. Austin State University spent the summer working as interns for SFA’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness to collect data on classrooms and design safe learning environments for their classmates.

On June 8, Miriam Amador of Lufkin, April Cooper of Huntington, Osiel Mireles and Cristel Perez of Houston, and Brooke Ward of Dallas were tasked with taking measurements, inventorying and photographing all furniture and technological equipment, and documenting elements ranging from electrical outlets to floor, baseboard, wall and ceiling materials for nearly 400 rooms across campus, including auditoriums, gyms and laboratories.

“They had to assess every space that can possibly be used to teach a class,” said Sally Ann Swearingen, associate professor and internship coordinator for the interior design program at SFA.

The students are working through all their data to create floor plans for each SFA building to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by the first week of August. They’re also compiling spreadsheets with information to help faculty members know how many students are allowed in each learning space and how to arrange the furniture and technology in those spaces to meet physical distancing requirements.

The students’ finished floor plans, along with their proposed physical distancing furniture plans and occupant loads for each room and lab, will be posted on the Office of Institutional Effectiveness website. All faculty and staff will have full access to this site.

“This will be a great resource many people will be able to utilize even after the pandemic ends,” Swearingen said. “Everybody will have access to it, so faculty and staff, department chairs and deans will all know how each classroom should look.”

In return for their efforts, the interior design seniors are receiving a small stipend and credit for their interior design internship course.

Swearingen directed the students to approach this assignment as if they were completing a job for an interior design client.

“I believe in looking at a job to see how you can make others’ lives better,” Swearingen said. “This is a great way to illustrate to these students how to be resourceful and utilize their creative skills to assist their firm or client.”

The client for this project is John Calahan, director of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness at SFA.

“This has been a great group of students to work with,” Calahan said. “Their efforts are critical to the safe opening of the university in the fall. The data, analysis and plans they’ve developed set a new standard for information management regarding our academic spaces and will inform future decisions for the university.”

All five students have different strengths that contribute to the team, Cooper said.

“We have five different perspectives, so we’ve been able to eliminate any gaps in our COVID plan,” she said. “We were able to correct each other and prevent each other from missing something.”

One of the first needed strengths was proficiency in the Microsoft Teams application, which Amador provided. She helped team members use the tool to connect with each other and exchange large quantities of data, including photos of every piece of furniture and technological equipment encountered in each classroom. She also used the app to ensure her teammates uploaded complete information.

“Using Teams was key because we’re not all in the same location and we’re not online at the same time,” Amador said.

Amador and Ward led efforts to take the physical measurements of each room.

“We noted every door, every small nook, all the windows and electrical outlets,” Ward said. “We made sure electrical plans were accurate for the electrical team to come in later and create Zoom rooms.”

Cooper assessed the furniture in each room to help determine how it should be arranged and occupied for proper physical distancing among students in the fall.

Amador, Cooper and Ward uploaded digital copies of their measurements, drawings and notes in Microsoft Teams so Mireles and Perez could use computer-aided design software called AutoCAD to merge the information into floor plans for each room.

“We made the plans really simple to understand, even for someone who doesn’t know how to read floor plans,” Mireles said.

The interior design seniors have had to juggle jobs, other classes and commutes from out of town to complete this assignment. Cooper commutes from Huntington, Mireles commutes from Houston and Perez contributes remotely from Houston, where she’s working and taking two other courses.

Though the students knew each other from their junior year classes, this opportunity gave them the chance to learn from each other.

“It was great being able to work as a team even when we can’t be physically together,” Perez said. “That’s the challenge of COVID.”

Mireles and Perez transferred to SFA through the university’s interior design partnership with Houston Community College. They used Zoom to attend classes from Houston even before the pandemic.

“When we were in the Zoom classes, we all would see each other, but Cristel and I never would communicate with April or Brooke or Miriam,” Mireles said. “But this fall, I’ll feel comfortable texting them if I need help and vice versa.”

Swearingen said learning how to work with team members who have different schedules and live in different locations is good preparation for when these students graduate and begin working for global firms with offices in a variety of time zones.

“There are so many firms that have an office in London and another in Houston and another in New York,” she said. “We’re training them that this is how you work together.”

Swearingen added, “This group of students has done really well to brainstorm, talk among each other and work through issues and double-check each other. It takes a team effort.”

Perez said team members have been able to exchange different tips and tricks they picked up on their respective campuses.

“Osiel and I learned AutoCAD tricks from our HCC professors, while April, Brooke and Miriam had their own tricks from SFA professors,” Perez said. “We’ve picked the best of both worlds to apply in future projects.”

This internship also gives the interior design seniors experience — the ability to create COVID-19 plans for offices and workspaces — that more businesses will need as employees return to work during the pandemic.

“At the beginning, I just considered this a regular internship, but now, toward the end of it, I’m very proud of us,” Mireles said. “I feel like this is special for us because it reflects what’s going on in the real world. We can show potential employers our portfolio and tell them how we put our COVID plan together, and I think they’re going to be really impressed.”

The seniors said their fellow students should feel safer knowing SFA is meticulously following CDC guidelines while making preparations for the fall.

“We know what’s going on; we’re seeing it with our own eyes. We've been working many hours a week for the past two months to complete the project,” Ward said.

Perez added, “And we’re students, so other students know we care because we’re also attending classes here. We want to make it safe not just for us but for others, too.”

For more information on SFA’s reopening plans, visit