In a converted game room on the ground floor of the Davis Center, junior Bernadette Benn assists students arriving for their weekly COVID-19 tests. During her two-hour shifts, Benn instructs people on how to properly swab their noses and seal the swabs in vials. Some days, she helps people at check-in stations or types labels for the vials.
About 2,000 students each day come to the center for their weekly asymptomatic COVID tests, as part of UVM's strategy to keep the community safe. The constant flow of people and stream of activity gives Benn a chance to socialize while practicing her skills in patient interaction.
“I meet new people and gain a different perspective on the UVM community. It’s fun to say hi to people I wouldn’t normally see,” Benn said. “Instructing students on how to do the test has helped me with my communication skills and how to explain things so patients understand what’s going on. It makes me feel like I’m doing something to help.”
In a typical year, students in health care majors gain real-world experience doing clinical work in hospitals and medical offices. During the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting students and patients curtailed many onsite opportunities, and some students pivoted to doing their clinicals in the UVM COVID testing center. Students were offered opportunities to volunteer, with priority given to those needing clinical hours, such as nursing majors. About 100 students have volunteered since the center opened in August. The center also employs 37 paid workers, with about 15 students working throughout each day.
“Student interest in working here has been impressive. It shows they are invested. They need clinical hours or want to do community service, and we are giving them an opportunity to gain real work-life experience,” said Whitney Feininger, who coordinates test center staffing.
Along with front-line operations, the job includes answering email and telephone inquiries, training new employees and volunteers, and boxing up completed tests for transport to a laboratory.
“It seems like such a simple thing, but when I look at how many tests we do in a day I say, ‘wow, I was a part of that,’” said Molly McKenna, ’21.
As a nursing major planning a career teaching nurses, McKenna enjoys helping people. “When I sit with a student and talk to them about the test and answer their questions, it’s a rewarding experience for me,” she said. “Clearly, the testing is working. It’s holding students accountable. Vermont and UVM are doing so well.”
For some, working in the COVID testing center has reinforced aspirations to work in community health.
“I’ve taken classes in epidemiology and public health, and this is cool because I’m working behind the scenes during a pandemic, doing health promotion, making sure people are keeping on top of being tested to control the spread of disease,” said Julia Carboneau, Health Sciences ’22. “This is probably the best job I’ve ever had, because it has to do with health, it’s interesting, and working with other college students is fun.”
“I enjoy the high-intensity, fast-pace and critical thinking, figuring out what’s wrong and trying to fix it,” said Maxwell Durham, ’21, who plans to become an intensive care nurse. Working in the COVID testing center fulfills his fraternity’s requirement for community service while he practices communication skills. “I instruct people how to self-administer the test, making sure they properly swab and place it in the tube. I’m getting more comfortable talking to patients, applying nurse-to-patient interaction skills and helping them feel comfortable with the procedure.”
While nasal-swabbing is not exactly pleasant, the testing center atmosphere is festive with music, silly games and themed days like Halloween and Green and Gold Fridays. With many classes online and only small social gatherings allowed, it’s a precious opportunity to interact with people.
“COVID testing has become a thing you do here at UVM. We say to each other, ‘when are you going for your test?’ It’s fun to go on the same day,” said McKenna, who also works as a residence advisor. “Guests aren’t allowed in the dorms, I can’t have friends over, and we can’t get together in classes or off campus much. Working in the testing center, I’m able to see my friends.”
Benn appreciates that her work helps ensure fellow students keep their Green and Gold promise to get tested weekly.
“I know that other schools have shut down and you can’t use the facilities if that happens. If my helping out encourages students to keep getting tested, it will help the community and keep our school open,” Benn said.
Volunteers shifts for October and November are currently open to any current UVM student or employee. Sign up online with access code RallyTogether.
For more information, contact Whitney Feininger.