The testing center and campus life: ‘It’s really rewarding to help people, especially in a time like this’ 

Michelle Mukasa worked her way to becoming one of the few non-nursing students allowed to work at UMass’ COVID-19 testing site, and in it she found room for contribution and innovation

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By Claire Healy, Assistant News Editor

This year, nursing students worked at the University of Massachusetts Mullins Center COVID-19 testing site as part of their coursework; only a handful of non-nursing students were given the opportunity to volunteer alongside them. Michelle Mukasa, a junior biology major living on campus, became one of those few students through the sheer strength of her desire to contribute and gain experience.

Mukasa had gotten her certified nursing assistant certificate in 2019 but was never able to use the certification for work due to COVID-19. When she realized that students at the testing center were getting clinical hours, she brought her skills and experience to supervisors and professors at the testing center. She expressed interest to them every chance she could get, showing them her passion for helping others-eventually, they made an exception and hired her. This experience shaped her semester and allowed her to connect with and help others.

“Sometimes, working at the testing site, you just bump into so many faces and people. And like most of the people who come to test, they’re from virtually anywhere,” she said. “There are different professors that offer their perspective on things . . . I’ve had conversations, really insightful conversations with just complete strangers at the testing site. Learning more about things in people and science, I just feel like it’s all really like coming together this semester.”

Prior to that, Mukasa spent her summer and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic with her mother, learning how to cook from her. Later in the semester, after an emergency arose with her grandfather in Uganda, her mother flew out to be with him and support him. As Mukasa moved back to her house for winter break. Those cooking skills she got from a summer with her mom helped her provide for herself while her mother was away.

“That was one of my favorite things about the pandemic, which is weird to say,” Mukasa said, reflecting on the summer. “The pandemic has been very sad and disappointing because it resulted in me not being able to get patient hours, but in a way, it had been a blessing because it gave me time to spend with my mom.”

As she moved back to campus, where she had previously been working two jobs to help afford college, the Resident Assistant job she had been depending on was suddenly no longer available. By October, the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union was fighting for RAs to have compensation if they weren’t able to retain their position, but the future was very unclear.

“It was sort of a slap in the face for me and other students that depend on RAs for paying for college, I don’t know if I got the position, if I would just lose the position again,” she said in October.

Throughout the semester, Mukasa settled into life on campus, taking 22 credits and working as a teacher’s assistant and as an information technology assistant for the College of Nursingin addition to her job at the Mullins Center. Due to the reduced number of students in her classes and the opportunities that the Mullins Center offered her, she began to feel as though she was benefitting more academically from this year than other students.

“Being in the courses with the professors that are in person, there’s a small number of students, so you feel like you shine, or you stand out more in the courses. And then like being able to get clinical hours, like working with the COVID[-19], asymptomatic testingand exploring more about things that interest me in the biology world, I feel like I benefited more this semester than any other semester,” she said.

While her academic experience became more and more positive, social life on campus remained severely limited. Her concern about getting COVID-19 from fellow students, the extent of her workload and the precautionary measures she and friends took as a result, left little flexibility for social time.

“I’ve been keeping a consistent weekly routine where I only hang out with maybe five to seven people a week. And those are the same consistent people. And they also live on campus and they also get tested,” she said. “I had to cut back on my social life, a pretty extensive amount . . . for the protection of my health, which I feel like is a fair compromise.”

Towards the end of her fall semester, in a biology lab, Mukasa discovered a research topic that she would continue to be passionate about throughout the year. A professor of hers was doing a study on zebrafish, and how mutating zebrafish in the embryonic stage affects their form and bone structure. He allowed Mukasa to continue working with him in his lab.

One of the most profound parts of Mukasa’s semester came when she assisted a deaf man in getting tested at the Mullins Center.

“I was a little bit worried at first because I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to communicate with him. But I noticed that there were whiteboards at our testing station. So, I just started writing down things on the whiteboard to try and help them figure things out,” she said.

Realizing that the center would benefit from staff that knew sign language, she asked her supervisor about American Sign Language classes for students working in nursing or aspiring to be physician assistants. Her supervisor thought it was a great idea, and immediately signed her up for classes. In the future, Mukasa hopes these classes will be available to other people working similar positions, and Braille directions for blind patients will be more readily accessible.

“It opened my eyes to realizing there are people in this pandemic that are blind or deaf that are being impacted differently,” Mukasa said. “People who are deaf, they normally read people’s lips to figure out what they’re saying, and when people wear masks, it’s hard to see that. So, it really opened my perspective in terms of diversity in the worldandit solidified my desire to become a PA, because I want to help all sorts of people like that. And the experience of helping someone who is hearing impaired, and then him smiling and saying thank you, was just like really nice.”

Mukasa was rehired as a resident assistant for the spring semester and continued her work at the testing site. The research she started with her professor on zebrafish will continue throughout the summer and fall of 2021. Over the summer, she will alsowork as a nurse’s aide. She plans to graduate after the fall 2021 semester and move forward with her dream of becoming a physician’s assistant.

“It’s really rewarding to help people. And especially in a time like this, where people spend time in isolation or spend time alone, like in rooms at home. It’s just nice to have that interaction in a safe way, with masks on and stuff and to be able to feel like you’re doing something during this time that we’re living in,” Mukasa said.

Claire Healy can be reached at clairemarie99@gmail.com.