Ashtabula Students on the Frontlines of COVID-19 Fight

Nearing Graduation, Health Degree Students Thrust into Pandemic Aid Roles

For almost all of the students in the nursing and allied health programs at Kent State University at Ashtabula, their final semesters are spent in classrooms and clinical settings getting hands-on experience to prepare them for their professional careers. But for many this year, that hands-on experience has been as part of the front-line force in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve been in the emergency department of our facility, and all other entrances have been closed except this one – we are literally the first line for all employees, patients and outside services,” said Robert Cogar, a second-year nursing student from Madison, Ohio. “I've never seen anything quite like this, the mixture of fear, intrigue and cynicism, but there is a great sense of camaraderie amongst all of us in the department.”

Cogar is one of the 34 nursing students slated to graduate in May, and approximately half of them are actively assisting in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and patient service sites during the crisis.

That doesn’t include the hundreds of alumni already active in health care professions already on the front lines.

“I am currently working in a long-term care and rehabilitation facility and have volunteered to work shifts in hospitals if I am needed,” said Jennifer Quellhorst, an LPN-to-ADN (Associate Degree in Nursing) student from Andover, Ohio who is working toward becoming a registered nurse. “Going to work right now scares me, but this is what I do. I am a nurse. I have never abandoned my patients or residents in the past and I'm not going to abandon them now when they need me the most.”

Facilities like the one Quellhorst works at have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

“We have had confirmed cases in one of the locations I have worked,” she said. “I am working on our quarantine unit which is being used for any new admissions to observe them for symptoms and for any current resident who develops symptoms.”

While the students are not fully licensed professionals and are limited in the services they can perform and provide, they are still seen as a huge asset to short-handed facilities.

“We as students are a huge help believe it or not; even though we're not doing as much as the actual registered RTs, we are helping them out by filling in as an extra set of hands,” said second-year respiratory therapy student Azael Padilla-Llamas. “All the health care workers work so hard and so much. All my respect goes out to them.”

“You could definitely see how tired and drained some of these health care workers are during this time,” Padilla-Llamas added. He’s been performing respiratory therapy for patients on several floors in his facility.

“During this pandemic, all the hospitals and workers need an extra set of hands. The more help the better.”

“We are especially proud of our students; over half of our nursing students are not only attending classes to become registered nurses but also concurrently working as healthcare providers in a variety of settings across northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania,” said Senior Director of Nursing and Allied Health Julie Senita. “The curriculum is rigorous and challenging, but ultimately prepares our students to be resilient, competent registered nurses and allied health professionals. These students graduate ready to face the challenges of a health care system that is ever changing.”

While being thrust into unexpected roles during this crucial time, the students also face the challenge of continuing their coursework and doing so in a completely new learning environment. Kent State went to a remote instruction model across the university system on March 16.

This included in-person clinicals being shifted to virtual simulation in many cases, and other courses shifted to online learning platforms.

“Transitioning to on-line learning has definitely been a challenge,” said Quellhorst. “Nursing is a collaborative effort and being in a classroom sharing thoughts and ideas with others and working together to care for patients for many students is a much more effective learning process. But the Ashtabula nursing faculty and staff are behind us 100% and they will do whatever it takes to help us succeed.”

Cogar echoed those thoughts. “Remote instruction has been challenging for me, because I love the feedback of live lecture and bouncing ideas and thoughts on physiology off my classmates,” he said.

Padilla-Llamas had prior experience with online learning, and has said the campus has adapted well to this new learning environment.

“My experiences in the past with online classes was not that great, so at first I hated the idea of remote instruction, but it has not been so bad,” he said. “I do miss our lab classes, just because that is where instructors work with us and let us get our hands on the great respiratory equipment that we have there. But we have to learn and adapt and become more dedicated. Our instructors and directors are awesome, they work so hard and do everything they can for us to become successful, especially now.”

Quellhorst indicated that rural internet service has also been an obstacle for many students, especially those in the southern part of Ashtabula County. “High speed access just isn't available where I live and a hotspot is a fantastic idea, but it still requires connection with a high-speed tower that in some locations just isn't available. But the faculty and staff have put so much effort into this transition to make it all manageable. I’m so thankful for that as they try to work around the missing human connection that is so critical to nursing.”

“In March, these students had to quickly adapt to remote instruction for classroom and also adjust to a sophisticated modality of virtual simulation used to supplement the clinical and laboratory experiences they were missing as students in the healthcare setting, said Senita. “It is amazing to me how resilient our students are, and it’s a reflection of their incredible drive and motivation and a true testament to their ability to become superior healthcare providers in the healthcare setting which is also unpredictable and rapidly evolving.”

Alumni like Laura Salyan are also playing a pivotal role in the current crisis. Salyan was a paramedic-to-RN transition student who graduated in May 2019, just one month before giving birth. She recently was part of a group of area registered nurses dispatched to provide support in New York City, one of the pandemic’s hot spots.

“Each day I hear remarkable stories about our current students and alumni demonstrating leadership in healthcare and especially the nursing profession,” said Senita. “I am amazed when students share their stories of attending school while working, caring for their families, and facing the challenges that the current COVID-19 situation presents.”

Kent State Ashtabula has been producing some of the most sought-after and desired health care graduates for over 50 years, filling the workforce with well-educated and highly-trained professionals – many in as little as two years.

The campus offers associate degrees in several in-demand and good-paying health care fields including nursing, occupational therapy assistant, physical therapist assistant, radiologic technology, and respiratory therapy. For career advancement, Kent State Ashtabula has online bachelor’s degree programs in nursing, respiratory care and radiologic and imagine sciences (CT/MRI).

To apply to any of these programs, or to learn more about these degrees at Kent State Ashtabula, visit


POSTED: Friday, April 17, 2020 - 3:07pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 4:36pm
Kent State Ashtabula Communications & Marketing