Student Spotlight: Mary Grace Phillips, Full-Time Student & Healthcare Worker

Woman in plaid jacket driving a tractor

NC State students have stepped up in the face of COVID-19 challenges.  Some are balancing work schedules, some are donating time and skills, and all are navigating the new online course platform.  

We talked with Mary Grace Phillips, a Crop and Soil Sciences undergraduate, about experiencing the COVID-19 fight first-hand. She is a junior majoring in agroecology and community food systems while working full time in the healthcare field.  

Have you always worked at a hospital in addition to your studies?

woman in mask holds up NC state wolf symbolI’ve always been working full time as a lab technologist.  I work in a free-standing emergency room in Garner. The patients we see are treated and sent home or are transferred to another in-patient facility if necessary.  

What’s your weekly schedule like?

I work every weekend third shift, 7 p.m.-7 a.m. Friday through Sunday, so I try not to schedule Monday morning classes.  I lucked out this year with all Tuesday – Thursday classes. I also work with the Agroecology Education Farm on Wednesdays, but that is closed to student workers right now.

How have COVID-19’s effects impacted your studies?

The changes are challenging.  I never know how much work I can get done over the weekend.  I’m expecting work to get busy soon, so I’m trying to get as much ahead on my school work as I can to avoid any ‘incompletes’.  I’m more conscious to do what I can when I can.

How busy is work and what is the mood like?

Right now we actually have fewer patients than usual, which is a good thing.  I hope it is a good sign that people are taking the virus seriously, abiding by social distancing and staying home.  We won’t know the impact on our facility for another week or two since it takes 10 days to show symptoms.  

Every day we come into work, and we are checked for fever and cough to make sure we are well enough to care for our patients.  I’m glad it’s not too busy. But is it the calm before the storm? I don’t know. The mood vacillates between calm and anxious. We’re all human – our fears and anxiety are the same as everyone else’s, but we have to carry set aside our fears and anxieties so we can focus on treating our patients. 

What is your role at the hospital?

close up of hospital lab worker's hands writing notesI’m a lab technologist.  I don’t directly collect patient samples, but perform the lab tests for flu and RSV.  Those same samples get used for COVID-19 testing if indicated. The COVID-19 tests get sent out to an external lab, but we are handling the same samples. 

It’s getting easier now that there are more types of tests and we have more established protocols. We want to do things the right way and help get patients where they need to be. This means helping clinicians with questions about testing and collection of samples.

What’s your biggest challenge?

The unknown – how things will be.  We have plans if things get worse, but it all depends on how bad it gets.  There is a shortage of lab techs, just like nurses and doctors. It could mean more hours in the coming weeks.  Overtime has always been optional, but these are unprecedented times.

Has the move to online classes affected your expected graduation date?   

I had a long conversation with my advisor about pass/fail and incomplete class options, but I don’t think it will affect me this semester.  All my professors have been really responsive and are working with me. I’m doing ok now, as long as I can stay ahead. It took a lot of stress off me to know I have options.  

The hardest thing right now is having a stable internet connection.  I tried to listen to a few online lectures yesterday and couldn’t. I’m not sure which end was the problem, or if it is network demand.  I know of a few students who don’t have access at all. It’s really stressful.

What do you wish people knew about COVID-19 from a healthcare perspective?

I hope people understand the gravity of the situation.  I think a lot are starting to see it. Back at spring break, everyone didn’t understand.  Without the closures and social distancing, we’d be worse off. It really matters what individual people do.  Following social distancing guidelines is the biggest thing people can do – and checking on each other.

Is there any good you think will come of the current situation?

That’s why I’m majoring in agroecology because I believe in a sustainable, local food supply

People talk about the importance of a global market.  It’s great, but we need to keep in mind continuity. We’re obviously not immune to supply problems. We’ve got to be able to get food and water to people who need them.  In the southeast [US], we’re better prepared because of frequent hurricane preparations, but it’s not enough.  

I’ve seen a lot of people playing outside and walking – more in the last few weeks than in the last seven years.  I hope this wakes people up to what’s really important. That’s why I’m majoring in agroecology because I believe in a sustainable, local food supply.  I hope we keep having these conversations. We need to invest in our local supply chain. 

Farmers market sign in western NCWant to Learn More about Crop and Soil Sciences?

Want to know how you can do inspiring agricultural studies like Mary Grace does?   NC State students learn from amazing professors and hand-on opportunities every day.  Learn more about student degree pathways or sign up for an undergraduate’s guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  It’s how we are growing the future.