Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alma College community has lived the mission of the college: to think critically, serve generously, lead purposefully and live responsibly.
In an effort to ensure their health and the safety of those around them, students, faculty and staff turned out in big numbers to receive their COVID-19 vaccines. All across the world, in various ways, alumni pitched in — some in doctors’ offices and hospitals, others in research laboratories, government agencies and volunteer organizations.
As the rate of serious illness begins to slow down in some hard-hit areas, early signs of recovery are appearing. At Alma College, this is best illustrated by students once again working closely with faculty and staff to secure experiential learning opportunities and research training, take part in extracurricular activities and volunteer services, and come together as one campus community in a residential setting.
“The new normal” is a phrase that means something different to everyone, but for these students and others at Alma College, it’s simply about getting back to doing what they do best.
Lainie Ettema and Isabel Oakley
For Lainie Ettema and Isabel Oakley, “the new normal” involved community engagement.
Alma College intermediate painting students, led by Ettema and Oakley, built a large, outdoor mural in downtown Alma, on a building owned by Ryan Smith ’06. Under the direction of assistant professor Jillian Dickson, Ettema, a junior art and design major, and Oakley, a senior psychology major, brought new energy to the formerly plain, brick structure. They also built an interdisciplinary skillset, including entrepreneurship, project management, experiential learning, community engagement and service learning, along the way.
“I’ve never done anything like this before, and it was a really great experience,” said Ettema, of Howell, Mich. “Prior to doing this, art had mostly existed to me on a canvas. The main people who were assessing it were my professors and I. With a mural, you’re collaborating with others, and you’re thinking of how this piece will be received by the community. It’s building on the skills I’ve used previously, and it’s interesting.”
The approximately 22-by-24-foot mural, Oakley explained, was designed by Waterford, Mich., senior Samantha Smith in a modern style: with bright colors, sharp lines and geometric shapes. The goal was to create something the entire community could relate to and enjoy, she said. With that in mind, she and her classmates created a tribute to the Pine River, with smiling, gold-colored fish jumping out of turquoise-colored waves, toward a yellow sun.
The work was done in the first five weeks of the 2021 fall term. During the day, students would use a mechanical lift and scaffolding to reach the top of the building and paint the background colors by hand, using handmade templates on a grid structure. At night, they would bring out a projector screen — which, because of its brightness, couldn’t be used during the daytime — to shine the more intricate images on the building, before adding the finishing touches.
“This was a creative project, but it wasn’t just about that,” said Oakley, of Trenton, Mich. “It was about maximizing peoples’ different talents. Now, we have this beautiful piece of art we can all look at, and say, ‘We did this together.’ That’s a pretty great feeling.”
Jordan Robertson and Mackenzie Hetzler
For Jordan Robertson and Mackenzie Hetzler, “the new normal” was about learning on the job.
Both are currently seniors in the nursing program, which entitles them to do clinical work: supervised interactions with patients in healthcare facilities, or in their case, the MyMichigan Medical Center – Gratiot. Through these experiential learning opportunities, Robertson and Hetzler have gained new perspectives on what nurses do — and have had affirming moments that made them realize they are in the right field for them.
“The great thing about Alma’s nursing program is that you’re not going to fly under the radar like you might at a larger school,” said Hetzler, of Auburn Hills, Mich. “You’re getting 1-on-1 time with a clinical instructor, who is exposing you to different situations in different settings. There have been times over the past year when I’ve been able to think critically on the spot and see myself making progress in my own head.”
Hetzler explained that in one instance this past year, she listened to a patient’s lungs and detected an unhealthy sound. When her instructor, Melodee Babcock, came into the room, Hetzler pointed this out. With a surprised “Oh!,” Babcock confirmed Hetzler’s suspicions. Upon further tests, the patient was diagnosed with a low oxygen level, and received treatment.
“It was super exciting to find that and be able to do something. I can’t wait for what comes next,” Hetzler said.
Robertson, of South Lyon, Mich., is assigned to the labor and delivery unit at MyMichigan – Gratiot. On one night shift this past summer, she witnessed two separate childbirths — one Cesarean birth and one vaginal birth — both for the first time. In the case of the latter, Robertson said, she helped out in a very hands-on way: participating in breathing techniques with the mom-to-be and singing songs to make her feel relaxed.
“One of the professional nurses told me, ‘You never get tired of seeing babies come into the world.’ I used to want to get involved in pediatrics, but now, I want to go into maternal health. This has been incredible.”
Robertson transferred to Alma College from a larger state university, a decision that she strongly feels has benefited her education.
“Our simulation lab is a special place,” she said. “When I tell professional nurses the kinds of things we do here, they tell me, ‘You’re going to be so well-prepared when you graduate.’”
For Danten McFate, a senior integrative physiology and health science (IPHS) major from Haslett, Mich., “the new normal” means getting back to doing hands-on research in a small class setting.
Under the direction of assistant professors Alex Montoye and Jennie Vranish, McFate spent his fall term looking into ischemic preconditioning — an experimental technique for producing resistance to the loss of blood supply. For this study, he temporarily cut off blood flow to the legs of his teammates on the men’s soccer team, then removed the restriction, thus producing a greater blood flow to the previously restricted area. What McFate wanted to know is whether the rush of blood flow can improve athletes’ performances in certain tasks, using those limbs.
“There’s been a little bit of research into certain products on the market, like resistance bands, but not enough. By testing the athletes’ times, before and after the restriction, in running a mile, the height of their vertical jump and the accuracy of their passes on the soccer field, I’m hoping to definitively say whether these are useful products or not,” McFate said.
“With COVID-19 going on last year, this type of research was very difficult to do. We had to be very careful with touching each other, and this research is very in-your-face. So, I’m really grateful that I have this opportunity in my senior year. It ties in well with what I want to do in the future,” he continued.
McFate has taken a pre-therapy track with his studies at Alma, and plans to pursue a doctorate degree in physical therapy upon graduation, with a goal of eventually becoming a physical therapist. With respect to his research, he plans to write a paper on his findings and present it at the annual college Honors Day, before possibly publishing it in an academic journal.
The equipment needed for the research, known as the Delfi system, is on loan from Dr. Benjamin Cox, a Mount Pleasant, Mich.-based orthopedic surgery specialist at Cox Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery. McFate expressed his appreciation for Cox in letting students use his equipment.
“It’s an interesting system, sort of like blood pressure cuffs. For example, you might put it on an athletes’ leg, then watch it tighten up, and it spits a number right back at you. It’s great to know that this kind of equipment is exactly what the professionals are using, and I’m gaining that experience here in college,” he said.
For George Amoako, “the new normal” isn’t so much about big-picture hopes and dreams. It’s about finding a network of support and making friends in a new area.
Amoako is an international student from Accra, Ghana, who intends to major in biochemistry. He is active in student groups and extracurricular activities; including iGem, Chapel, First Year Guides and working as a teaching assistant.
Amoako said he chose to attend Alma College for its personalized approach to education, marked by small class sizes — believing it to be the right fit for him as he chases his goal of someday becoming a medical doctor.
However, Amoako had to spend the fall term of his first year at Alma College taking online classes, due to the travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I did my best. I did all I could, and I ended up doing pretty well. But it was pretty challenging at times. There’s a time difference of five hours between Alma and Ghana, so sometimes, I would wake up at dawn and need to take an exam. Other times, I was nervous about emailing my instructors for help, because I thought they would be in bed. But they always answered me anyway,” Amoako said.
Coming to Alma for the 2021 winter term was challenging, he said, for a number of reasons having to do with adjustment: among them were American cuisine and the sometimes-fierce winters of Michigan. With more time in the U.S. under his belt, he said he now feels much more comfortable in Alma than he did in January 2021.
“When I came here, people were pretty settled into their friend groups, and it was hard to introduce myself. People are much warmer now. They say hi when they pass me,” Amoako said. “In September, I went on a trip that ACUB (Alma College Union Board) put on, to Cedar Point. That was scary, but lots of fun. It’s my favorite memory so far.”
Amoako credits Jeffrey Turk, associate professor and Chemistry Department chair, with helping him feel as though he has made the right choice to attend Alma. Amoako also thanked Timothy Sipka, associate professor emeritus of mathematics, for acting like a “father figure” to him.
“(Turk) is my advisor, and he takes time to talk to me about anything — not just classwork, but anything about my future and becoming a doctor. (Sipka) helps me with everything, too, and I am very thankful for both of them,” Amoako said. “I’m looking forward to my future and I feel like I’m in the right place. Right now, I’m just taking things a day at a time.”
Sara Swaneck and Anna Lagereva
Sara Swaneck and Anna Lagereva are also pursuing research in the post-pandemic world. Under the tutelage of assistant psychology professor Mark Mills, Swaneck and Lagereva are exploring how people from different cultures and political persuasions react to emotions.
Swaneck, a senior from Hartland, Mich., is asking research subjects to take part in a visual search: a task that involves an active scan of a visual environment, seeking to find a particular feature. Specifically, her research seeks to understand if people from liberal or conservative political backgrounds respond better to positive or negative stimuli, and what implications that may have for the way they process information.
“What you might expect to find is that liberals are quicker to respond to a positive stimuli and conservatives are quicker to respond to negative stimuli — the stereotype being that liberals have a tendency toward happiness and idealism, while conservatives can detect threats better,” Swaneck said. “What’s more interesting is that I want to know how the two can help each other. Too much of anything can be harmful, and sometimes our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.”
Swaneck, who is double-majoring in psychology and sociology, received a grant to pay for her research over the summer. She hopes to present her findings at the college’s annual Honors Day event, and possibly have her work published in an academic journal.
Lagereva, an international exchange student from Moscow, Russia, is pursuing a similar line of research. She’s using a visual search task to determine if people from the United States or Russia respond faster to positive and negative stimuli. Her plan is to study Americans during her time in the U.S., before moving back home next summer and studying her classmates at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“Cultures have a lot in common, but they also have differences that are important and should be celebrated. I want to clarify the differences and how they fit in the real world,” Lagereva explained. “It’s something I’ve thought about, personally, for a long time. That’s the fun of psychological research — answering your own questions.”
Abigail Cavanaugh’s version of “the new normal” has been about investigating what “normal” used to look like, 100 years ago.
Together with Benjamin Peterson, visiting professor of history and political science, as well as other students, Cavanaugh spent the fall term taking part in an independent study about the history of the Wright Leppien Opera House. Cavanaugh’s research supported an event, “Three Nights at the Opera,” wherein student musicians and actors recreated performances that may have taken place at the downtown Alma venue a century ago.
“I dove into the college archives and the Alma Public Library and found out as much as I could about the Opera House. Then, I produced a printed foldout that was distributed during all three nights of the event,” said Cavanaugh, a senior from Gaylord, Mich. “It was really interesting to learn more about this building, which was so instrumental to the local history
All things local are interesting to Cavanaugh, who is double majoring in history and business management. She worked for a number of small businesses in her hometown, and their importance to the community left a lasting impression on her. Upon graduating from Alma College, Cavanaugh plans to attend law school and would like to eventually work with small businesses to help them find a path to long-term sustainability.
“Growing up in a small town, if you needed a sponsorship or a donation, you would always go a small business first,” she said. “However, sadly, even though these businesses are so important, a lot of them don’t have much longevity. I would like to help them make their dreams come true and stay open for a long time,” she said.
Cavanaugh credits Kristin Olbertson, associate professor of history and pre-law program coordinator, as well as Elizabeth Cameron, professor of business administration, with helping her find her footing in college.
“I wouldn’t have an interest in history at all if it wasn’t for Dr. Olbertson’s introduction class during my first year, and Dr. Cameron has always encouraged me to stay active and pursue a double major,” Cavanaugh said. “One of my favorite experiences in college has been an independent study with Dr. Cameron, where I worked on social media marketing for small businesses. I was able to take those experiences back to Gaylord and make a difference for my hometown community.”