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Lessons of a Challenging Year

May 18, 2021

Three alumni share the challenges and rewards of working through the pandemic.

The challenges of the past year have affected people in virtually every occupation, from all walks of life. UNC alumni — from nurses and caregivers to educators and performers — are often in settings where they work closely with people in their community. We reached out to three alumni to find out what this past year has been like for them. Each said the skills, experiences and relationships they gained at UNC helped them meet those challenges.

For Jose Martinez III ’07, the decision-making and leadership skills he gained from his time in the Presidential Leadership Program, in Cumbres, and through working with the César Chávez Cultural Center, were all useful in his work as an assistant principal. Critical Care Nurse Angela Turk ’07 drew guidance from the fundamentals she learned through UNC’s Nursing program, and Janice Sinden ’97, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, says she found support and inspiration through her continued service and connection to the university as a trustee.

Here, they share a snapshot of challenges faced and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Angela Turk

Angela Turk

Angela Turk ’07 is a critical care nurse at Denver Health Medical Center, where she’s worked in the intensive care unit for 17 years. 

What has this past year been like for you?

We’ve definitely been on the frontlines of COVID since last March. It’s nice to start seeing the end of the tunnel and getting fewer patients. We prepped for the worst, and it was really bad, but it didn’t get as bad as we feared. You get into nursing to save lives and make a difference, and then all of a sudden you might have to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. It was a hard thing to think about, but, thankfully, we never got to that point.

What were some of the challenges you met this year?

It was scary because I didn’t know enough about it. I was doing my best to help and be part of the team, but at home, I didn’t know how close I should get to my kids. I didn’t want to see my parents, or my in-laws or nieces and nephews, because I was dealing with COVID patients every day. And the idea of possibly getting it and exposing other people was terrifying. It’s been hard, like it has been for everybody. We never thought we’d be a part of history in the making. We definitely got challenged and learned what resilience was.

What were some of the lessons that came out of this year?

I work at a teaching hospital, and our practices and guidelines are evidence based. Since this was a pandemic that nobody knew anything about, every day, every shift was something different. It was constantly evolving and changing. It took a lot of communication and teamwork and learning. I relied on the fundamentals of nursing, knowing my skills as a nurse, my education and continuing to educate myself. I’ve become really close with my coworkers. We relied on each other. And I think as a community, it’s made us realize how precious life really is.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez III

Jose Martinez III ’07 is assistant principal at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, Colorado. He won the national Milken Educator Award in 2018.

What was this past year like for you?

Thinking back to last March, a lot of it just came as a shock. We were well aware of it [COVID], but just didn’t know how close it was going to get. And I remember very distinctly: It was a Wednesday afternoon, and we were hearing that we wouldn’t be back in school on Monday. We didn’t believe it, but it was happening. And so you want to panic, but the truth is, being in education, being in leadership and having so many people, mostly children and families, relying on you, we just didn’t have time for that.

What were some challenges you met this year?

My first task was to make sure we got every kid a device who needed one. So that was the first big pivot. Another thing that really became challenging was the end of the year expectations, like prom and graduation, and realizing there was no way we were going to be able to hold those events in the traditional sense. That was frustrating for our families and for us. It really showed what a strong team, teachers and even kids, we have. There was unhappiness at every turn, but everyone was really supportive and willing to come together. Despite being separated, we were closer than ever before and communicating more than we had before.

What were some lessons that came out of this year?

I’ve learned that a lot of the institutions, structures and traditions we have — they’re important and we don’t want to lose them — but this has shown us just how flexible we can be. The pandemic forced us to evaluate why we do stuff the way we do in education. As we move forward, I hope we don’t lose sight of that, at the high school, elementary or even the collegiate level. This is truly the future of education, and this is a really exciting place to be.

Janice Sinden

Janice Sinden

Janice Sinden ’97 is CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA). She serves on the UNC Board of Trustees and is a fourth-generation Coloradan.

What was this past year like for you?

Last year was slated to be a banner year for the DCPA. Then our organization came to a screeching halt on March 13, 2020, due to COVID-19, like so many others in the community. In total, we ended contracts with 96 artists and professionals, and within a few months, we furloughed another 130. The magic just stopped. But we remain deeply grateful to our community and our audience, and we’ll be back. This is just a long intermission.

What were some challenges you met this year?

We have a robust, dynamic Education and Community Engagement Department, and last year alone, we engaged 142,000 students. This past year, virtual learning became a new way for us to connect with our students, and we hope to continue to offer virtual programming going forward. Also, we turned our 10,000 square-foot Seawell Ballroom into a high-definition studio to host events of all types virtually. And we continued renovation of two of our theaters, which will be completed this spring, and our plan is to complete the capital campaign this year, as well.

What were some lessons that came out of this year?

We are grateful for our community, our patrons and our donors. We would not exist without these folks, just like UNC is not a university without the students, faculty and staff. We remain flexible and diligent since there are a lot of new issues and tactics to think through. We are actively planning our re-opening so our audiences feel comfortable returning to the theater and our actors and artists are ready to return to the stages. Being on the board at UNC has been inspiring during this past year. It’s been nice to stay connected with President Andy Feinstein and know I’m not alone. We both have these amazing institutions and face many of the same challenges. It’s such an honor to be part of that at such a critical moment. 

–By Amber Medina