Grad biotech students gained experience working with pharmaceutical companies developing the COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics.
Grad biotech students gained experience working with pharmaceutical companies developing the COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics.

For Such a Time as This

by Madison Folkers and Rachel White

When the world shifts in a dramatic way, causing disruption in nearly every facet of life, it is the resilient, resourceful, and faithful who persevere and, ultimately, come through stronger and better prepared for the future. During the COVID-19 pandemic, APU students demonstrated fortitude and adaptability through their creativity, innovation, and service, all hallmarks of a rich liberal arts education. Through intentional experiences and learning, championed by caring faculty, students were equipped with problem-solving and critical thinking skills and bolstered by a solid foundation of faith. These valuable competencies, practiced and reiterated throughout the entire university, enabled APU students, uniquely equipped for such a time as this, to courageously live out their calling.

“Our faculty and students rose to meet the challenges the pandemic brought to higher education in inspiring and imaginative ways,” said Provost Rukshan Fernando, PhD. “The lessons we learned will benefit our university and our graduates for years to come.”


As the cases increased, the focus quickly turned to the vital role of “frontline workers,” who selflessly cared for others besieged by the virus. APU nursing students embraced their vocation with compassion and dedication. “Throughout the pandemic, nursing students served as contact tracers, conducted COVID-19 screenings and testing, and volunteered at vaccine clinics throughout Southern California,” said [Renee Pozza, PhD, RN, CNS, FNP-BC(/faculty/rpozza/), senior associate dean of academic initiatives and innovation and professor.

“When the surge took place last winter, our nursing students stepped up, working on the front lines in acute-care externships. They willingly gave up their Christmas break to serve.”—Renee Pozza, PhD, RN, CNS, FNP-BC

APU nursing students on the cusp of graduation knew that their first experiences as medical professionals would not be business as usual, but they remained committed to their patients and their field, despite the challenges that rocked the healthcare system. These experiences infused their on-campus education with invaluable depth and insight that will serve them—and their future patients—well. “Our primary goal was to help our senior nursing students graduate on time so they could join the workforce during this nursing shortage and help healthcare workers and patients in the midst of the pandemic,” said Beverly Kelley, MS, RN, CNS, CCRN, director of the Entry-Level Master’s in Nursing program at the Inland Empire Regional Campus and assistant professor.

This led the School of Nursing to partner with five local hospitals, turning their clinical placements into COVID-19 outreach programs for underserved populations. Nurses, known for their ability to heal physical pain, more often than not also provide emotional and spiritual comfort for those in their care. When the crisis made it impossible for patients’ loved ones to enter hospital rooms, even for those who were terminally ill and approaching the end of life, APU nursing students “stepped in and held the hands of people who were dying so they wouldn’t be alone,” Kelley said.

While nursing students were tending to physical needs, students studying social work and other behavioral sciences cared for those struggling under the weight of mental, emotional, and spiritual health issues. The prolonged global crisis presented a unique opportunity to connect students and community members while adapting to a changing mental health landscape. Embracing new technology, social work students developed “a whole new skill set in assessing and meeting needs,” said social work professor and department chair Mary Rawlings, PhD.

To reach the elderly who were in isolation given their particular vulnerability and COVID-19 restrictions, undergraduate students created videos for convalescent home residents, with topics ranging from exercise tips to art to wellness advice. Other students explored the potential of technology to help them care for local children and teens, ensuring that APU’s most effective community outreach programs continued to thrive, including Cougar Pals, which connects APU students to middle-school-aged youth in area schools. Unable to meet in person, students adapted quickly by holding their weekly meetings with their mentees virtually.

“Even with all of the restrictions in place,” said Robert Welsh, PhD, ABPP, dean of the School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences, “our students delivered approximately 100,000 clinical service hours during the pandemic and helped our local population cope with this once-in-a-lifetime crisis.”

Students received the support of local and federal government agencies, which deemed social workers essential, allowing approximately one-third of APU students studying social work to continue in-person service with the homeless, at substance abuse treatment centers, and with other agencies, including the Department of Children and Family Services.

The early months of the pandemic saw sharp spikes in mental health issues in children and adolescents. Emergency rooms reported a 24 percent increase in mental health- related visits in children ages 5-11. Responding to this crisis within a crisis, one graduate student developed resources for children to engage in virtual therapy, ensuring access to mental health professionals in the midst of the pandemic. Another Master of Social Work student, Dominique Salido, MSW ’21, supported the elderly by creating informational brochures on telehealth, ensuring continuity of medical care and attention. “I had to adapt my capstone project to best meet the needs of older adults during the pandemic,” Salido said. The challenges she faced as a social work student resulted in personal growth, “my self-awareness, self-confidence, and compassion for serving others increased this year.”


The pandemic also shined a light on the contributions of scientists and researchers who worked around the clock to find solutions and treatments. It was this dedication that pushed science students and faculty to the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic. Graduate biotech students gained firsthand experience developing the COVID-19 vaccine alongside biotechnology giants, as well as assisting in the creation of new COVID-19 therapeutics with Gilead Sciences (Remdesivir). They used a process that David Dyer, PhD, executive director and professor of biotechnology, said will “represent a way to deal with cancer in the near future.” Much more than medicine and experiments, Dyer believes that APU’s MS in Biotechnology program “models how an ethical, Christian worldview fits into the science world. God created science and medicine for the benefit of people. Science blesses people and saves lives.”

“Biotechnology is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, and I am pleased that we offer this program with a Christian perspective to help meet society’s needs,” said Louise Ko Huang, PhD, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of the Center for Research in Science. She pointed to the same forward thinking that drives the field of biotechnology fueling other departments on campus. “COVID-19 is a science problem,” Huang said. “We can use this pandemic as a case study in our science classes. It represents the ultimate culmination of how modern science works.”


As the sciences were challenged to innovate, the arts were compelled to reinvent their craft. Theater came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 arrived. The last time the theater’s actors were forced off stage was after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, and without Broadway as a North Star, theater students at APU went off script. In true the-show-must-go-on fashion, the Department of Theater Arts adapted to the circumstances, enlisting the help of industry professionals, including professional virtual designer Matt Hill from HBO and technical director Gavin Wyrick, to continue producing shows, as well as Frank Minano, production manager who also serves as the artistic director for Inland Valley Repertory Theatre.

Faculty became students once again, learning new technology and then teaching it to students. The department sent students light and sound equipment in the mail and instructed them via Zoom on how to properly set it up and use it for recording. Despite the obstacles, the department still managed to produce four feature-film-style shows, including Big Fish: The Musical, Winters’ Tale, Pack of Lies, and New Works Play Festival. Senior Industry Showcases, a cornerstone of an artist’s college experience, also stayed on track—albeit a bit unconventionally. The Hollywood Reporter highlighted APU’s web-based Bachelor of Fine Arts showcase, holding them up as a model for other universities. But the department did not stop there. They rented out the Cinelounge in Los Angeles, which allowed casting agents to watch senior showcase drive-in-movie style. These innovations opened the doors for APU students to perform for a much wider audience and trained them for the future of virtual theater.

From street artists caked with chalk dust to the masters whose gold-plated names shimmer in the Louvre’s gallery lights, from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Ang Lee, artists are the world’s litmus tests for cultural honesty, courage, and resilience. “When times are difficult, the artist leans in,” said Jill Brennan-Lincoln, MA, chair and associate professor of the Department of Theater Arts. “We step into the uncomfortable and reflect what is happening. Art reflects life.” Modeling that truism, theater students wrote a web series titled Remotely Yours, which took a look at the awkward turn that life and dating have taken since the arrival of the virus. Students also produced original material for the virtual New Works Festival.

APU’s choral programs seized opportunities to reach new audiences, lift the voices of others, and speak on meaningful matters. “We had to dig in and reinvent our program to reflect the times. Moving forward, I know that we will never take in-person rehearsals for granted again,” said Michelle Jensen, MM, an associate professor and conductor of the Chamber Singers. Based on the theme “Hear Every Voice,” the APU Chamber Singers explored the tragedy of oppression and used their skills and talent to broadcast relevant stories through music and song. They connected virtually with a choral group in the Philippines through an international choir competition called INTERKULTUR. The two conductors and two choirs collaborated to sing a song in the Basque language, capturing second-place honors.

The Chamber Singers also worked with industry professionals and rising-star vocalist Jarret Johnson, performing a virtual rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black Anthem, even earning a Grammy nomination for their version. Contributing to the theme, composer Brian Sidders ’21 wrote a song for APU’s choir titled “Hear My Voice,” featuring 20 languages.

“Our focus on the music of oppressed peoples was very impactful for the members of our ensemble,” said Sidders. “We have a diverse group of singers with different backgrounds; several of them and their communities have endured oppression. For them, it was powerful to sing the music of their community (or a community with similar struggles). For other singers, it was powerful to hear the stories and sing the music of their peers’ communities. There was a definite purpose for our music this year, beyond artistic beauty. That purpose kept us going during a season when the inability to sing together in real-time could have so swiftly extinguished our passion.”

Though the landscape of the arts will likely look different moving forward, one thing remains constant. “Our technology and tools are evolving,” said Stephen Johnson, DMA, dean of the College of the Arts, “yet our making a difference in the lives of students to make a difference in our culture for Christ is unchanged.”

On the stage, in the classroom, and on the streets; at bedsides, in laboratories, and in hospitals—APU students faced the COVID-19 pandemic with a God-given spirit of power, love, and wisdom. At every turn, they embraced the challenges and leaned into the hard work of learning and serving well. Throughout it all, these students have gleaned an invaluable truth— they have the strength, ability, and faith to answer the call and become the scholars and leaders this world so desperately needs.

Madison Folkers is a freelance writer living in Sioux City, Iowa. [email protected]

Rachel White ’97, MA ’17, is the Executive Director of Strategic Communication in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement at Azusa Pacific University. [email protected]

Originally published in the Spring '21 issue of APU Life. View all issues.