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Deeper Learning Through the Pandemic

Hazel Kelly

While the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes our lives in countless ways, innovative CSU faculty have nimbly shifted to provide real-time relevancy in their coursework.

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​​​​For some, the pandemic has brought on the challenge of coping and growing through traumatic stress. For others, it's a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the human experience in times of crisis. Here are just a few innovative ways that CSU faculty have nimbly shifted to provide real-time relevancy in their coursework.

​​Growing through Trauma | CSU Monterey Bay

This summer in the earlier stages of the pandemic, CSU Monterey Bay students in a special topics course learned the academic theory of trauma psychology—as well as the social, emotional aspects of trauma on a more personal level.

Christine Valdez, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at CSUMB, instructed the four-week, upper-level course—titled “Trauma, Loss and Growth During COVID-19"—to provide an in-depth exploration of the nature of individual and collective trauma and stress as it applies to the pandemic.

Dr. Valdez—also a licensed clinical psychologist—observed a lot of anxiety, stress and uncertainty among her students during the early days of the pandemic. “I saw the course as an opportunity to teach them trauma coping skills during a time when they could use it the most," she says.

As students gain a better understanding of trauma from a personal perspective, they may be better equipped to identify trauma in others—such as their future patients or clients. “This will prepare you if you're going into the field of psychology, and also will prepare you for how to handle your own stress and trauma," Valdez says.

The course was an opportunity to teach them trauma coping skills during a time When they could use them the most."  ​—Dr. Christine Valdez, CSU Monterey Bay 

Valdez explains that psychology students are in a unique position because they may be on the frontlines after graduation, dealing with the long-term impacts of the pandemic. “They need to be prepared for how to deal with this and how to help people get through it."

And while we are still in the midst of the pandemic and its mental health impacts, “I don't think we quite understand what the aftershock is going to be in terms of the extended social isolation, the extended job loss or financial strain on people, the extended working from home while caring for kids," Valdez says.

But with support, positive aspects can result from adversity—a concept known as post-traumatic growth. Trauma can shake the foundation of your life, but post-traumatic growth can help you build a stronger foundation, Valdez explains. 

“Individuals who experience post-traumatic growth will be able to recover more quickly from future trauma or stress because they have built a stronger foundation that's grounded in new priorities, greater connections with people, and maybe spiritual faith in some cases."

While Valdez says she was struck by her students' overall resiliency during a very challenging time, she noticed that some were still in a state of anxiety and not yet at the point of developing post-traumatic growth, she explains.

This spring, Valdez plans to teach two sections of the course again. “I'm curious to see in this springtime course, whether there will be more post-traumatic growth because it's been almost a year."

For expert tips on coping with disappointment and loss due to COVID-19, read Learning to Cope, Finding Hope.​

Reflecting on Societal Impacts | Chico State

At the Chico State Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology​, museum curation students in the fall Anthropology 467 course have been planning, researching and designing a virtual exhibition that explores how the current pandemic and past epidemics have impacted us, from both a scientific and social perspective.

“The exhibit aims to explore how epidemics are more than contagious diseases that infect our bodies," says William Nitzky, Ph.D., instructor of the course and assistant professor and museum co-director. “Epidemics are also social, mediated by class, ethnicity and race, that shape and expose the injustices and inequalities of our society." 

Set to launch in February 2021, the “Epidemics of Injustice" exhibition will feature two virtual galleries that highlight the constructive and destructive aspects of epidemics and pandemics, says Dr. Nitzky. The first gallery, titled “Epidemics," will look more at the scientific and historic side of viruses and diseases—from the bubonic plague to COVID-19. The second gallery, titled “Injustice," will focus on personal narratives and experiences during times of crises from our society and others around the world.

Each student curates a part of the exhibit with themes covering a wide breadth of historical, scientific and societal issues. For the “Injustice" gallery, one student is focusing on how social media is not only bringing people together during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also creating an avenue for social movements and protests. Another student is focusing their exhibit on psychological stress and its toll on the body, and what people need to cope with the impacts of the pandemic.

One of the key themes of the exhibition is social injustice, as it pertains to the pandemic. In addition to exposing some of the systemic issues that perpetuate inequalities in our communities, Nitzky says some students' exhibits also seek to show the visitor that it's not just infectious diseases that are contagious—ideas, specifically racist ideas, can be, too.

The project is notable because it marks the museum's first-ever completely virtual exhibition, guided through completely virtual instruction—and during its 50th anniversary, no less. “I've never created an online exhibition in my life, and I can be honest about that," Nitzky says, adding that he, along with his students, are learning through the process. “It's actually really exciting." 

​"For many students, this exhibit is helping them reflect on the social impact of the pandemic that they and others around the world are experiencing first-hand," Nitzky explains. Some are using this exhibition as a platform to engage people and expose the social injustices and systemic problems in our society, he says, adding that that museums must be relevant and timely. 

​​​Support Through the Pandemic

Since 2014 the Long Beach Trauma Recovery Center (LBTRC), a program through the Cal State Long Beach College of Education, has been offering free mental health treatment to underserved survivors of violence and other traumas, in addition to outreach and education services for the community. But since the pandemic, the center has shifted the focus of its services, says director Bita Ghafoori, Ph.D., who is also a professor in advanced studies in education and counseling at CSULB.

The pandemic presents the potential for trauma and acute stress to underserved individuals in particular, who may have to work in higher-risk jobs, live in tight quarters and have limited access to healthcare, Dr. Ghafoori says. “They're exposing themselves to a virus that could potentially kill them," she says. “You could see how that could be traumatic."

A select number of CSULB counseling psychology and social work master's students receive clinical training as therapists at the off-campus LBTRC. “There is no other CSU that offers this and there's such high demand for trauma therapists that most of our students get jobs before they graduate," Ghafoori says. While the pandemic has forced all therapy sessions to go virtual, the services remain an important part of the LBTRC's role in the community. In fact, the center became the second of its kind to open in California, thanks to state funding in 2014.

In addition to clinical therapyDr. Ghafoori says the LBTRC has been called upon more and more to develop trainings and workshops on how to cope with trauma and pandemic-related stress. At the CSULB campus for example, Ghafoori and her colleagues have provided virtual workshops to the College of Education, as well as other campus-based organizations.

The LBTRC also offers a virtual coffeehouse for CSULB College of Education students to drop in monthly to receive support and resources on how to manage stress from LBTRC therapists. “We focus on educating students on how trauma—including the pandemic—may be contributing to psychological stress and provide support strategies," Dr. Ghafoori says.

​Visit the Mental Health Services website to learn more about support available for CSU students.​