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Social work students, from left, Colleen McKenna, Daniela Gonzalez and Daphne Coriolan worked as contact tracers during the pandemic.

The internships that Daphney Coriolan, Daniela Gonzalez and Colleen McKenna completed this spring were anything but mundane; in fact, the experiences may shape the trajectory of their professional lives. 

As contact tracers, this trio of pending Rhode Island College graduates were part of an 18-person School of Social Work team that assisted thousands of vulnerable people caught in the wave of COVID-19.

The internships, coordinated by the School of Social Work field education office and RIC Assistant Professor of Social Work Michele Paliotta, required contact tracers to work with either the college's COVID response on campus or with Pawtucket and Central Falls residents in their Beat COVID-19 effort.

"I can't say enough about the work these contact tracers did during their internships," Paliotta says. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to be part of a grassroots, community-level intervention, and they did their work during the thick of a pandemic. From a professional perspective, for them to have this experience on their resumes, people will respect that and provide opportunity to them for sure."

The contact tracers made hundreds of calls, advising COVID-positive people to isolate, setting up resources for them to quarantine and checking in with them on a frequent basis. Paliotta says the experience helped the students strengthen a critical aspect of social work practice: human engagement.

"The contact tracers had to learn how to hold space and interact with people over the phone, and that's difficult," she says. "They did it with grace and gained confidence to use these same skills when we return to face-to-face interaction."

Coriolan, a social work graduate student who handled logistics and served in a supervisory capacity for the college's COVID effort, says the work was rewarding yet challenging at the beginning.

"My role was to create cases for students who had tested positive and assign contact tracers to do follow-up," Coriolan says. "Initially, when we started there wasn't a good system in place. We weren't navigating how to look up students' demographics. However, as time went along, our team got much better."

That team included McKenna, who is graduating with a bachelor's degree in social work and plans to pursue her MSW at RIC this fall.

''This contact tracing project drew me in because I wanted to represent positive change during a difficult time," McKenna says. "The biggest challenge for me was listening to students have mental health struggles while isolated in small spaces in their dorms. I aimed to alleviate their stress of being alone by reaching out to them every day."

Gonzalez, who worked on the Beat COVID-19 campaign in Pawtucket and Central Falls, used her bilingual skills to help residents secure food, masks and unemployment benefits.

"I grew up in Central Falls, so I saw how this pandemic brought to light all the disparities within communities like mine," Gonzalez says. "Many of the residents I worked with were relieved to receive assistance and guidance. Many of them were worried about feeding their families and paying their bills. Even after providing the necessities, just continuing to check in with them during two-week quarantine periods made a difference."

In many cases, the clients whom Gonzalez worked with had few options to isolate.

"It's tough to stay safe in a household when there isn't much room and you're sharing bathrooms," she says. 

Gonzalez's ability to speak the language of the mostly Hispanic population served as a reassuring asset.

"If you're sick and afraid, having someone call and speak Spanish or Portuguese has to be relieving," says Paliotta, noting that some clients were undocumented. 

After graduating, Gonzalez says she intends to pursue a graduate degree at RIC and continue working with inner city communities.

"I want to be an advocate for people who don't know that they have a right to receive resources and opportunities," she says.

Meanwhile, Coriolan believes her future lies in doing more macro-related social work involving prison reform.

 "There are huge disparities when it comes to people of color who are incarcerated," Coriolan says. "After studying for and receiving licensure, I want to see what I can do to change that scenario."

McKenna says she's seeking changes in another area where disparities exist: mental health care.

"Mental health screenings while people are getting regular physical health checkups is an initiative that needs to be expanded," McKenna says. "And these screenings should be more accessible to underserved communities.''

As for the RIC community, it might have faced a steeper climb against the COVID curve if not for the grueling hours of screening by the social work contact tracers.

"Members of the Center of Health and Wellness and the COVID response team at RIC would like to thank the social work students for their time and tremendous work on this effort," says RIC Professor of Nursing and Interim Director of Student Health and Wellness Marie Wilks. "We could not have gotten through some of the more difficult weeks without them."