NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Two graduating seniors in the health science program at Stephen F. Austin State University spent their fall internships helping university officials conduct contact tracing for COVID-19 cases reported on campus.

Wendy Chavez of Houston and Frankcheskia Pyrtle of Conroe gained real-world experience through their internships, which were established by the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs to help SFA Health Services manage COVID-19 cases on campus.

Both Chavez and Pyrtle began their college careers at SFA knowing they wanted to help people and their communities, so they took nursing courses. But they were soon drawn to the health science and epidemiology fields. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they truly realized the impact of their new career path.

“When COVID broke out, I noticed a shortage of public health professionals,” Chavez said. “There are not that many people who choose to go into epidemiology or public health, but those workers are essential now more than ever before.”

Despite the need for more public health professionals, many internships in this field were canceled because of the pandemic. That was the case with Chavez’s internship at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Pyrtle also was having difficulty finding an internship in a health care facility because of the pandemic, so when Dr. DawnElla Rust, professor of health science at SFA, presented Chavez and her with the opportunity to help SFA while gaining valuable experience, they took advantage of it.

“With all the problems these students faced securing internships during COVID-19, I really wanted to provide them with a meaningful experience,” Rust said. “Both Wendy and Frankcheskia expressed an interest in ‘doing epidemiology,’ and the pandemic provided them with a transformational opportunity to develop their skills while helping SFA.”

Contact tracing has long been practiced for infectious diseases, but the pandemic has pushed it into the limelight. SFA needed its own contract tracing team as students returned to in-person learning on campus in August. Dr. Adam Peck, assistant vice president for university affairs and dean of student affairs, turned to SFA’s health science program for help.

“I think this is a great model of an academic and student affairs partnership,” Peck said. “We really benefited from the expertise and training of these students, and I’m glad we could provide them an internship experience during a time that those were so hard to come by.”

Chavez and Pyrtle took a seven-hour training course from Johns Hopkins University and began their internships in August.

“This was the perfect opportunity, as someone who plans to go into the health care field, to be hands on and assist with an issue that affects everyone,” Pyrtle said.

SFA’s seven-member contact tracing team faced some challenges during the semester.

“Almost every week, something was changing,” Pyrtle said. “There was an update, or something needed to be added to our system or procedure forms. We had to be diligent about implementing these changes and informing the SFA community.”

Despite the hard work during an unprecedented time for health care workers, Chavez’s experience has solidified her love for epidemiology and her career choice.

“To succeed in this field, you must be attentive, compassionate, patient and understanding,” she said. “I have learned how to solve conflicts on my own and adapt to the constant change of procedures and protocols. I’ve also developed skills like time management and professionalism.”

Pyrtle said she’s gained insight she can use to help keep her friends, family and community safe.

“Safety, health and personal wellness have always been passions of mine,” she said. “If I am ever able to expand my knowledge and enlighten others on those subjects, I consider that a major success.”

Both Chavez and Pyrtle are pleased with the SFA community’s response to the pandemic.

“Overall, faculty and staff, as well as students, have been cooperating with us and handling this pandemic well,” Chavez said.

“I think the most important general improvement that could be made would be self-accountability on everyone’s part,” Pyrtle said. “We are restless, and we want to go back to a normal life as soon as possible, but we all need to come together during times like this and work toward a common goal of slowing the spread. We need to keep ourselves and others safe. We need to act as a collective to see real improvements.”

For more information on SFA’s health science program, contact Rust at