The COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges for The University of Tulsa community. Lara Foley, director of the Office of Integrative and Experiential Learning, recognized both the difficulties facing her students and the opportunity for intellectual growth COVID-19 offered them.
During fall 2021, Foley therefore designed and led a 3000-level Emerging Issues course centered on COVID-19’s effects on various fields and disciplines. By harnessing and redirecting the trials of the pandemic in positive and refreshing ways, she helped her 13 students in this Honors program course engage with the pandemic with curiosity, creativity and resilience.
Creating from the heart
One of the students, Neha Khalid, a biochemistry major, wrote a children’s book called The Attack of the Virus. Inspired by her family’s transparency about important historical moments such as the Partition of India, Khalid wanted to share lessons from the pandemic with her future family.
Darian Martínez, a psychology and Spanish double major, wrote poetry to address the moments of darkness, hope and defiance she experienced during the pandemic. She referenced mental health struggles and focused on the social justice movements that occurred during the pandemic with an emphasis on George Floyd’s death. Reflecting on the experience, Martínez noted that she came to understand the importance of empathy in thinking about COVID-19 because it exposed her to components of the pandemic she had never previously thought about.
A highlight of the semester was a visit by Honors student Hannah Whorton, who shared with the students details about her COVID-19 podcast series Perusing the Pandemic. Moved by the passing of her grandmother from COVID-19 shortly after TU sent students home in March 2020, Whorton educated the class and her podcast listeners about the medical effects of the disease, its impact on communities and the importance of vaccinations. Whorton’s project brought her joy despite its grim subject matter because she knew sharing her grandmother’s story would impact her world for the best.
Meantime, Kate Lundy and Jin Jiaxu enjoyed creating documentaries as their film studies senior projects. They explored the impact of COVID-19 on a diverse group of students on TU’s campus and Chinese international students, respectively. Both Lundy and Jiaxu, whose advisor is Department of Film Studies Chairperson Jeff Van Hanken, said they gained inspiration from their own struggles during the pandemic and sought to learn how others dealt with COVID-19. These documentaries will be presented, along with an original short fiction film by graduating senior Sam Modde and an excerpt from Julia Grantham’s original screenplay, on May 6 at the TU Arts and Humanities Festival.
Overall, students in this Emerging Issues course valued its interdisciplinary nature and opportunity to learn from various perspectives. “It challenged me,” said Martínez, “to question the way I think, what I’ve been taught and how I look at the world around me.”
The interdisciplinary nature of TU’s Honors program facilitates learning in a way that leads students to new discoveries, collaborative ways of thinking and new perspectives on the world. Discover more and get your journey started!
Presently in her final semester at The University of Tulsa, art history and anthropology student Piper Prolago is drawing her studies to a close on a high note: She has recently been named a Global Winner in the annual Global Undergraduate Awards.
This annual awards program is an essay competition that invites undergraduates from around the world to submit essays they had previously written for a course. There are 25 categories, and Prolago entered her paper in Art History & Theory.
Prolago’s essay, “A Mughal Miraj: Imagining the Prophet in the Newark Khamsa Manuscript,” was written for a course on Islamic art and architecture taught by Associate Professor of Art History Maria Maurer. In her essay, Prolago analyzed a manuscript that was part of the Philbrook Museum’s “Wondrous Worlds” exhibition of Islamic art. Lara Foley, the director of TU’s Office of Integrative and Experiential Learning, had alerted Prolago to the competition and encouraged her to apply.
“I was really excited to be honored with this distinction,” remarked Prolago, who is also a student in TU’s Honors program and a Global Scholar. “I was surprised when they notified me that I had been selected as a Global Winner out of students attending universities all over the world. This honor makes me really proud of the work I’ve done, and I think it also speaks to the excellence of TU’s art history faculty and their creation of opportunities for students to produce original scholarship.”
“I am so proud of Piper,” said Maurer. “Her essay, which explored an unusual image of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey, was the best out of a class of really strong papers. Piper’s work was sensitive to the unusual visuals of the painting and its manuscript setting, and her research demonstrated that this image is part of a larger attempt to legitimize the Mughals within the context of the rivalry with the Safavids, as well as to demonstrate Mughal piety to their subjects. Piper made a genuine contribution to the field of art history by crafting such an elegant and persuasive argument about a previously unknown painting.”
A rich history of exploration and mentorship
Casting her gaze over her busy time at TU, Prolago underscores the role a number of faculty have played in her scholarly development. “Professor Maurer does such a great job of teaching from unique perspectives and diversifying the way we learn about art history,” said Prolago. “Her courses have enabled me to build foundational knowledge in the discipline of art history, but also to think more globally and widely.”
Another faculty member whom Prolago cites as having helped and inspired her is Associate Professor of Art History Kirsten Olds. “Whether offering support for my coursework or being a great mentor who’s helped guide me through the process of applying to graduate school, Professor Olds demonstrates the importance of having faculty who genuinely care about their students.”
For her part, Olds is equally impressed with Prolago: “Piper is the kind of student one remembers for their entire career. I would look forward to our weekly meetings to discuss her senior project. Her intellectual interests are so varied, from repatriation issues to graffiti and street art, public art policy, Filipino culture and contemporary photography by artists in the Middle East. But a throughline is her engagement with global issues in a sustained and meaningful way. I can’t wait to see what she’ll work on in her graduate studies.”
In addition to coursework and being mentored, a formative experience for Prolago was her participation during her sophomore year in the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities’ research fellowship program. Led by the center’s director Sean Latham, the program brought together an interdisciplinary cohort of students, faculty and community members to explore the theme of play. “This experience was really meaningful for me because it empowered me to think about complex issues from an interdisciplinary perspective,” said Prolago.
The finish line and beyond
During her final semester, Prolago is keeping extra busy as the editor in chief of the university’s newspaper, The Collegian. “This role is a lot of fun,” Prolago commented. “And having an organization like this is particularly important at a college that doesn’t have a journalism department. It’s gratifying to be able to carve out a space for students who want to explore journalism.”
As she looks to her future adventures, Prolago has her hopes set on studying art history at the graduate level. In particular, she wants to further her research in public art. “I believe public art is so important, particularly as we’re seeing a lot of momentum in rethinking the kinds of values we choose to uplift in public spaces,” commented Prolago. “As we tear down figures whose legacies represent a lot of pain and hate, we’re tasked with not only rethinking whose stories get to be represented, but also about why we’ve excluded so many people from those stories.”
For her part, Prolago is set on being part of what she calls “the conversation” about art’s role in creating a more inclusive future.
These four students share a passion for healthcare and equity. During their Global Scholars course, they discovered that one of the biggest problems facing healthcare access was right in their own Oklahoma backyard.
The team’s response was TORCH: Toolkit to Optimize Rural Connections in Health Care. “Our central idea was to work with leaders in rural Oklahoma to assist with research, advocacy and action in rural healthcare,” explained Huynh. Given the project’s timing, the students chose the COVID-19 pandemic as TORCH’s first focus area.
Lara Foley, an associate professor of sociology and the director of TU’s Office of Integrative and Experiential Learning, taught the Global Challenges course out of which TORCH emerged. She was so impressed with the quality and potential impact of the students’ project that she encouraged them to enter their project in TU’s World’s Challenge Challenge, wherein teams of two to four choose a global issue and design a unique solution.
In spring 2021, the TORCH team presented their plans and toolkit to a panel comprising TU academic leaders, administrators and alumni, as well as community leaders. Making it to the final round, the students were honored with third place. While that showing meant they would not advance to the global finals in Canada, the students continued to work on and expand their project, including deploying their knowledge, skills and time in rural Oklahoma.
Rural health, rural vaccinations
In January, the students reached out to the Rural Health Network (RHN) of Oklahoma to inquire about the possibility of getting involved in promoting COVID-19 vaccination. RHN was just beginning to ramp up its efforts to vaccinate rural Oklahomans and had been participating in local vaccination clinics put on by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
“The moment was perfect for joining forces with these motivated TU students to see how we could together improve health outcomes for our rural residents,” said Paul Marcum, RHN’s health information technology manager.
The collaboration began with a Zoom call to discuss strategy. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t just working with a student group that wanted to put their name on a project and call it good,” commented Marcum. “I was immediately impressed with the innovation and concern these students had for a population of people they have never met. The students came up with a whole vaccination education campaign that RHN ran on social media to help dispel the rumors of vaccines. There were fliers, memes, vaccination stickers – you name it, they had thought of it.”
The locus of the efforts was Pushmataha County in southeastern Oklahoma. But participation in vaccination clinics was low and turnout was mild at best. “It was clear this was going to be an uphill battle,” Marcum recalled.
Once the Oklahoma Department of Health ceased holding vaccination clinics in the surrounding counties, Marcum and the students realized they had an opportunity to shift gears: “We went from a vaccine education project to putting on our own vaccine clinic.” After many weeks of planning, RHN partnered with the Choctaw Nation to put on two simultaneous clinics, in Hugo and Antlers, and offer free vaccines to anyone that wanted one.
According to Marcum, one of the biggest obstacles in planning such events is finding volunteers that will actually show up, stay until the end and do a good job. “I had put all my eggs in one basket with the TU students and was using them as my single source of volunteers. But I will admit, I had no idea what to expect.”
During their final Zoom call before the clinics, Huynh and Mathew included all the volunteers who had signed on to help. “I was not prepared for the number of people the TORCH team had gathered and the participants’ level of enthusiasm,” said Marcum. “I had to hold back tears of joy until I got off the call; I was overwhelmed by their support. They had assembled a large group of mostly premed students that ALL had an interest in the welfare of the people of southeastern Oklahoma.”
Most inspiringly of all, every volunteer showed up at the clinics, which were held simultaneously on July 10 at the Antlers Fair Barn and the Hugo Agriplex. “It was a really special time for me, personally,” Marcum noted. “But it was also big for our community to have people from the outside work so hard and put many, many hours into a project that only benefited those that are local. I cannot speak highly enough about my interactions with every one of these people. They truly made a difference in the healthcare of rural southeastern Oklahoma.”
From theory to practice to impact
Looking back on the TORCH team’s accomplishments, Foley feels immense pride. “During a very strange year, in an asynchronous virtual class, they took their assignment and ran with it. TORCH is a great example of students learning about research and theories, using this knowledge to come up with ways to address global challenges and then trying to implement their ideas. Along the way, they encountered all kinds of hurdles and learned how to navigate them.”
On the student side, the experience of developing TORCH and then assisting RHN with education and vaccination delivery was both highly educational and personally rewarding. “As students who are from cities, we really had to push ourselves to learn more about rural areas,” noted Mathew. “We found there is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of access to healthcare, health literacy and economic mobility in rural parts of the state. Adding to the complexity of rural healthcare is the fact that each area is unique.”
“We are so thankful for Paul and the RHN team,” added Huynh. “Personally, working with Paul and this experience has taught me to confidently pursue my passions and pursuits because you do not know who will reach out and what opportunities are around the corner. It has fueled my momentum and efforts to address the disadvantages and challenges to health evident in these rural communities.”
The team’s experiences also brought home for the team the importance of community leaders and organizations in rural areas. “We are thankful to RHN for helping us investigate and address these health disparities,” said Mathew. Creating the toolkit and working with Marcum and his colleagues inspired the team “to keep striving towards finding new ways to provide education about and access to health in rural parts of the country.”
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