Entering a Public Health Graduate Program in a Pandemic: a Meme Personified and the Opportunity of a Lifetime all Wrapped Up in One 

By: Haley Schavemaker 

Graduate school during normal times (or should I say “precedented times?”) is an immense financial, physical, and emotional commitment. Perfecting the art of balancing academic requirements, refining technical skills, developing a professional network, and applying for employment has never been better navigated than by the average graduate student. The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) only amplified this balancing act. 

Before I share my insight however, I would like to recognize my privilege in having the ability to share my experience during a time when many students have needed to shift priorities, often having to place their education behind the need to serve as a caregiver and provider for their loved ones. 

I began my first year of Rollins’ Health Care Management MPH program as a recently evacuated Peace Corps volunteer, living back at home with my mom, and trying to save for my (hopeful?) move to Atlanta by working part-time at my local grocery store. To say that I felt a mix of emotions at the thought of beginning my graduate school career would be an understatement. Like many new students, I was already anxious, exhausted, frustrated, and disconnected. I didn’t know what the future job market would look like come graduation day, let alone how I could be expected to intimately study public health when the health care industry I had planned to enter had seemingly thrown away its rule book and turned up-side-down overnight. Insert the ‘This is Fine’ meme here. 

Since my first day as a Health Policy and Management (HPM) student, my initial assumptions and fears have been proven wrong time, and time again. Not only did my classmates and professors echo my struggles with managing their emotions but encouraged active discussion on the topic – even going so far as to offer time during class for students to share whatever was on their minds. I didn’t feel alone. I felt heard. Outside of the classroom, the Office of Admissions & Student Services consistently encouraged students to take advantage of the resources offered both at Rollins and Emory University. There was programming for activism and self-care, workshops for developing coping mechanisms for anxiety and procrastination, isolation & quarantine support resources, and virtual guided meditation sessions. Emory also offered students 24/7 access to clinicians, counseling services, and emotional support through their Timelycare telehealth program. Most importantly, all the above-mentioned services were free for students, accessible online from a smartphone, and respected student’s privacy and individual needs. 

Beyond the technical provisions Emory and Rollins offered students to ensure a meaningful and stress-free as possible school year, Rollins took care to update its curriculum to reflect the ever-evolving nature of public health. Each class translated the pandemic’s “lessons learned” into practical application, whether it was identifying ways to mitigate workforce burnout in my human resources management course or debating the implications of deregulating telehealth policies during a public health emergency in my health information technology and healthcare administration law courses. No matter what I was learning, I knew that the material was relevant, and would challenge my critical thinking abilities so that I could become a competent and compassionate future healthcare administrator. 

Not only did COVID-19 become a staple of each course within the HPM department, but each school within Rollins prioritized their efforts to strengthen and expand their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices to better advocate for the importance of applying a public health lens to social justice. The HPM department even created a DEI committee of faculty, students, and staff to discuss ways our program could further its equity and create sustainable, collaborative policy changes. Knowing that my school, department, and professors cared deeply for, and were actively researching and participating in discussions and legislative changes centering on the current state of health care and the glaring inequities the pandemic highlighted brought me a sense of security. It proved to me Rollins empowered its students, and actively stood with them, as students used their education and personal experiences to advocate for change within healthcare and across Emory, Atlanta, and greater Georgia community. 

To be completely honest, there are still days where I feel like the dog in the meme – with the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel not seeming to get any brighter, it’s hard not to. But my first year at Rollins showed me that it’s OK to not be OK. What’s important is that as a graduate student, my work in the classroom and in my extracurricular involvement was valued. I was reminded constantly that the skills I was building in my program and would be bringing with me into the future, were being honed at a time when the health care landscape was being rebuilt. Because of Rollins, I’m entering the industry with the mindset, skills, and resiliency needed to prove that I can be part of that rebuilding process too.