The past year has demonstrated clearly how a pandemic can continually influence people and communities in profound and dramatic ways. With this in mind, Clemson’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS) has pulled all of its departments together to present a course for students that examines how COVID-19 affects multiple aspects of everyday life from the standpoint of the political, social, psychological and health science disciplines that have a bearing on us all.

According to CBSHS Dean Leslie Hossfeld, work began in March 2020 on the course as Clemson University moved to online teaching. Hossfeld and department chairs began meeting weekly to discuss the college’s pandemic strategy, so she used the meeting to ask if a course that examines COVID-19 from multiple disciplines was possible.

All department chairs were eager to present the idea to faculty, with School of Nursing Director Kathleen Valentine and Department of Political Science Chair Jeff Peake leading the way on the course outline. Hossfeld said the work to bring all seven departments together to deliver a single course was a challenging but necessary, vital mission to accomplish in the name of student learning.

“Our college is focused on ‘building people and communities,’ but nothing in recent memory has challenged society like this pandemic,” Hossfeld said. “It’s not something to ignore or pretend will go away; it’s something to learn from in every aspect of our lives. We want to serve our students by painting a clear picture of how all the disciplines in our college play equally important roles in the way we process a continually evolving situation that has defined this moment across the globe.”

Topics that have been covered or will be covered this semester include how the pandemic has affected the political sphere, how COVID-19 has impacted food systems and food insecurity, and how online communication and journalism succeed and fail in delivering reliable information on COVID-19. A class module on the impact on health disparities and another on travel and recreation are still to come in addition to others.

“We open up the course to discussion posts between modules, and it has been amazing to see these students pour themselves into discussion and really dig into the material,” said Karyn Ogata Jones, a research faculty member in the School of Nursing and School of Health Research, who is coordinating the course. “I’m spending hours reading and responding to their comments because I’m both fascinated and inspired by them.”

Muskanzehra Momin, a senior psychology major, said she has enjoyed hearing about aspects of the pandemic that aren’t covered as much on the news, such as food insecurity issues that the pandemic has created or exacerbated. She has also enjoyed seeing discussion posts from fellow students to consider different viewpoints on the issues brought up in modules.

Ashley Joines, a senior political science major, said she was initially hesitant to take the course due to “COVID burnout,” but the modules and discussions she has engaged in over the last few weeks have been surprisingly interesting because of the opportunity she has had to view the pandemic through a variety of lenses. While topics related to gross domestic product or political polarization aren’t exactly new to her, she said she gained perspective on certain aspects of these topics during a module on trends and opinions in politics related to COVID-19.

Joines also said the course has given her a sense of perspective on the pandemic overall and how her issues “stack up.”

“I lost a summer job opportunity and didn’t get to do a study abroad, but I’m adapting,” Joines said. “If anything, the course has shown me how people from many walks of life are having to do the same thing and that my issues aren’t the biggest out there.”

Sydney Bertram, a senior public health sciences major, brings a unique perspective to the course because of her experiences working in health care and how COVID-19 has affected her personally. Bertram was studying abroad in Senegal, Africa, when the pandemic forced her to cut the experience short in March.

When she returned to her home in Columbia, she worked at a local hospital assisting in screening patients and visitors for COVID-19. She saw firsthand how COVID-19 affected patients and families, and after a few weeks it directly affected her when one of her family members contracted COVID-19 and passed away.

Bertram said that after these experiences in the spring and summer, she was initially hesitant to take a course focused on COVID-19, but it has become a helpful way to process everything that has happened to her. Seeing the diversity of student experiences in discussion posts has shown Bertram that she is not alone in the way the pandemic has touched her life.

Bertram is still working in health care, now as a patient sitter who stays with dementia patients to ensure they don’t hurt themselves. Processing her experiences along with others in a way that mixes the personal and the academic has shown her that she’s on the correct career path, but that there are—and should be—limits to what is expected even from health care workers during a crisis such as this one. In the course she has been glad to hear that others feel the same.

“Ever since I returned from study abroad in March, I’ve wanted to get involved,” Bertram said. “Seeing doctors on the front lines makes me want to be there or at least support those efforts. Many feel it’s a calling, but I hope that this situation reveals that it’s also a job and these professionals can only sacrifice so much before we need to address their mental health.”

For their culminating assignment, students have the option to submit a creative project, training or educational curriculum, or a final paper. According to Jones, students are already planning a variety approaches to this assignment ranging from traditional papers and presentations to a visual art project.

All distinguished presenters are CBSHS faculty presenting material on top of their regular teaching loads. The college plans to continue offering the course next semester, with different participating faculty members and topics that illuminate the ways in which their disciplines examine and make sense of the ongoing pandemic and its effects on all aspects of social life.

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