Pandemic perseverance: 5 Lopes who led the way

Connie Colbert worked day and night seven days a week in her quest to keep the campus as COVID-free as possible and to devise appropriate treatment plans.

Editor’s note: Reprinted from the February 2021 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.

By Mike Kilen
GCU Magazine

They used insight, resolve and ingenuity, and much more. These five shining stars from Grand Canyon University didn't just endure the trying months of the pandemic, they mastered it.

RESEARCH, RESOLVE: Connie Colbert, health director

Connie Colbert

She wanted to be a nurse and take care of people since she was a little girl in suburban Milwaukee. “I don’t remember wanting to do anything else,” Connie Colbert said.

But in 2020, it seemed as if everyone needed to be taken care of – a sprawling campus of students and faculty and staff facing this unknown virus.

And this tiny woman with a huge heart just wanted to help them all.

“Emotionally, it was tough some days. I’m not going to lie,” said the Director of the Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic. “I feel like people are looking to you to have those answers, and there are none. That was a hard thing. In medicine, you go by guidelines. When it came to COVID, nobody knew.

“There were days I felt like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to lend my expertise when not just our community but the world was in crisis.”

Colbert kept going. And going. She worked for months without a day off to keep GCU operating safely, hatching plans with a task force that reached more than 100 people – plans for testing and contact tracing, caring for students, researching for answers and soothing fears.

“It was all day every day until 12 at night, at the kitchen table talking to parents and students who had concerns,” said her husband, Demetrius Colbert. “We’ve been married for 29 years, so I know she has a heart for people. She is always looking out for other people.”

The list is long of the ways that GCU not only kept the campus operating but did so with relatively low infection rates, including aggressive and rapid testing, contact tracing and quarantine of students, and expert plans for safe classrooms and modified events.

Of all the universities in the U.S. with inperson instruction, GCU is among only about a quarter that stayed open for in-person instruction after Thanksgiving, said Marcus Castle, GCU’s Emergency Preparedness Manager, who worked day and night with Colbert on the plan. He gives a lot of the credit to her.

“Connie is big on research. What are people saying and what are people doing? Not just gut reactions – data,” Castle said. “That is her approach to everything.”

Colbert felt as if she got a jump on the crisis when a case of mumps in January led to research for an expanded campus infectious disease plan. Then the onset of COVID forced the task force to send students home to finish the final four weeks of the semester online, and the remainder of the spring and the entire summer were filled with more meetings and research for the September return of students.

“I felt responsible for making sure that health was a priority and we had all the right resources,” Colbert said. “I was really stressed. I just threw myself into information-gathering mode, figuring out what we could do best.”

One of the best examples was on testing, Castle said. Some companies were trying to charge a hefty price for slow results, but Colbert’s research led them to choose a better test with quicker results, key for contact tracing.

“She can get through the noise to ‘here are the facts,’” Castle said.

Colbert has a likable, nice-but-determined Midwestern manner. Members of her staff say with irony, “Connie will get mad at you,” because it just doesn’t happen.

She earned her master’s as a Family Nurse Practitioner at GCU before joining the University as an employee in 2011, one of a staff of two in the campus clinic. Now she oversees a staff of 25.

“It’s pretty amazing to see how she evolved,” said Dr. Tim Griffin, GCU’s Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor. “Who had the book on pandemics and how to manage a university campus? She had to draw up a strategy daily.”

Colbert said she kicked into her “driven mode,” but it got to be a lot. Cases surged after Halloween and November was looking like a challenge. She wondered how to get a handle on it while worrying about her staff facing infections, and then her mother-in-law got COVID and was isolated in a hospital.

“Everything was COVID,” she said. “You never got away from it.”

Griffin said, “She took on the weight of the world. I was worried about her.”

Colbert said she began to doubt herself but kept going. Her leadership skills emerged. She began to delegate. Instead of running all the aspects of student care, athletic testing, quarantines and contact tracing, she and Castle split responsibilities.

“Her instincts as a nurse practitioner kicked in with her ability to come to them in a time of need. She did that with individuals and she did that with the institution,” Griffin said.

The plan is in place going forward, and at last Colbert doesn’t feel as if she’s “eating an elephant” one bite at a time with no end in sight. She can start to look back and remember how faith and family got her through the blur of the past nine months. She’s thankful for her husband picking up tasks at home and for the love of her two daughters, the youngest of whom attends GCU.

Her mother-in-law, who is 80, got to come home but is in hospice with pre-existing conditions exacerbating her situation.

“It’s a bit of a roller-coaster, so your emotions are up and down,” she said. “COVID has affected every part of my life since February.

“But just to be able to help, I feel like I’m grateful for that. Hey, you just need to keep going. This is important.”

INGENUITY: Anna Guimont, student teacher

Anna Guimont found ways to connect with 6-year-old James Hartman.

Two teachers and a 6-year-old boy saved each other during a pandemic.

Jillian Hartman is an Assistant Professor in Grand Canyon University’s College of Education (COE). She teaches teachers.

Yet when son James, 6, was forced to start his school life online last fall while she and her husband were busy working from home, it was hard to get him to participate.

“You’d think I’d be qualified to handle virtual kindergarten,” Hartman said. “But we were drowning over here.”

COE ground student Anna Guimont also was drowning in pandemic challenges. She struggled with online classes at the beginning of fall term while moving, juggling a restaurant job and needing 45 practicum hours to move forward with her elementary education degree.

“I was freaking out,” she said.

COE leaders knew that some professors were fit to be tied while working from home and helping their own children with online school, and GCU education students were hard-pressed to find practicum hours in area schools empty of students.

Their plan to solve both challenges led Guimont to the doorstep of the Hartman home in north Phoenix. James, meet your new tutor, the very nervous Guimont.

She heard he had trouble interacting on a screen with kids he didn’t even know yet. He would throw his pencils and crayons. It made her cry that first week, thinking how unfair it was to James to start school this way.

But she watched how Hartman parented with enthusiasm and listened to her advice about making school fun for young students.

She remembered her upbringing, growing up in Minnesota with eight siblings. “You learn a lot of people skills,” Guimont said.

When James couldn’t sit still to learn his numbers, she incorporated his interest in Legos. He had to count out the number of Legos he could use to build an item. She incorporated her love of art.

“She was able to turn it into a game; she’s a fantastic artist and would make a funny drawing of them on a horse, or she would get him to jump around to words – that movement and engagement piece,” Hartman said.

Soon, when James heard that Guimont was coming for her three-times-a-week sessions, he would laugh out loud with joy.

“The difference was night and day; he was able to participate and get things done,” said Hartman, who was able to focus on her own work and two younger sons in the other room. “For me and Anna, there also was this cool dynamic. She had the benefit of having two teachers. She was watching James’ teacher (at Wildfire Elementary School), but then she and I had side conversations about technique and approach.”

Guimont learned a lot about teaching, but something else developed, too. She came to be very fond of James.

When she decided to get married April 19 to GCU student Elijah Owens, she knew James had to be the wedding’s ring bearer.

The day she told James and his two younger brothers that she was getting married, they voiced wedding objections (too much kissing) before James cried out, “You can’t get married! Not my Anna!”

She told him he could be in the wedding.

“They all tackled her, wrestling and yelling,” Hartman said. “That was touching and shows what a special connection and bond they had. She’s definitely in the right field.”

She even let James try on her ring. It was, she said, the scariest moment ever.

But they had learned the key to surviving a pandemic: Help each other out and have some fun.

INSIGHT: John Robinson, resident assistant

John Robinson helped students as a resident assistant and got engaged to his girlfriend, Cynthia Holmes-Landry.

John Robinson will always remember the pandemic as a transformative time.

The GCU senior was slumping, wondering if his major – English for Secondary Education – was right for him, when the pandemic hit in March and in-person classes were canceled. He had to decide whether he would go back to Southern California and be away from his girlfriend and fellow GCU student, Cynthia Holmes-Landry.

They talked. He decided to stay. That’s when everything changed, with faith and good fortune. He found a short-term rental and a good-paying job to pay rent “when no one was hiring,” Robinson said.

He began to reflect on what he wanted to do with his life and realized that he loved teaching, “but I cared more about students’ hearts than their homework.” So he switched his major to Christian Studies, which required a scramble to take three courses over the summer.

It worked out, but the challenges didn’t end. After the couple’s late summer trip to see Holmes-Landry’s family in the South led to a COVID-19 exposure and a quarantine upon their return to GCU, the resident assistant in Camelback Hall reflected on how he could help on his return to his post.

“The students here have been going through a lot, just like I had, and we are all in this together,” he said. “I didn’t want to give them a fake, cookie-cutter persona and pretend everything is OK. So in my interaction with them I was really honest. I wanted to know any way I can be there for them.

“The secret is when you talk to them to realize everyone is going through something. People want to open up and talk, so go past that simple wave in the hall. Don’t focus on the pain and ask the question, ‘What are you happy about?’”

It worked. And he could share the happiness he found during COVID. He got engaged in November and will marry Holmes-Landry on April 28, after both graduate from GCU.

“We walk and three days later we walk again,” he said. “This has been a season that God has proven He rises above everything.”

COORDINATION: Shareka Purnell, IT manager

Shareka Purnell

Shareka Purnell played basketball for GCU 11 years ago, so she’s still not one to shrink from a challenge. And this was a big one: She had to keep staff, instructors and students all operating on a high level using technology remotely when COVID sent most students home last March.

Her competitive fire came in handy when the Associate IT Manager’s team faced equipping nearly 5,000 GCU and Grand Canyon Education employees to work from home, all while servicing classrooms and handling help desk calls. Also, hundreds of student workers needed equipment to work remotely, sometimes with connectivity issues at their parents’ homes, or had to be set up with computers in quarantine once back on campus.

It has been a dizzying nine months, but Purnell and her help desk team powered through with long days and expert problem solving. For several months, she worked on campus every day of the week.

“I was surprised how fast we were able to turn over all the employees to home. Honestly, I don’t think any other company moved as fast as us to get it done,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of leaders reach out, saying they appreciate how we’re getting things done so quickly.”

When the game was on the line, Purnell was clutch.

SELF-IMPROVEMENT: Bijan Shokrgozar, ROTC cadet

Bijan Shokrgozar

Bijan Shokrgozar didn’t regress during COVID, he progressed. Not only did the GCU ROTC member complete the virtual 36th annual Army 10-Miler in 1 hour, 22 minutes, he scored 582 out of 600 in the Army Combat Fitness Test, the highest of the ASU/GCU Battalion.

“I took advantage of the free time with a lot of working out,” said Shokrgozar, 30. “I’m a little older than most cadets; I was in the Army for 10 years before this. I wanted to outperform them and stand out.”

He wasn’t done. He wanted to help other cadets achieve their physical fitness goals despite the limitations caused by COVID. He developed the Thunder Fitness Challenge, which helped cadets stay fit on their own with benchmarks in weightlifting, running and push-ups and sit-ups to earn certificates.

“In the ROTC program, fitness is very important; it’s a physically demanding job,” he said. “When you get out into a unit, the easiest way to stand out as a leader is be physically prepared.”

He proved that when life puts up a roadblock, use the detour time to improve.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


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