Students at The Evergreen State College Serve as Essential Workers During Pandemic

Lira porch shot

Evergreen students are well-known for pursuing their own paths to their degrees and for their commitment to service. This spring quarter, many students are taking a complete load of credits while holding full-time jobs deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oscar Lira climbs cell towers for a living. A veteran who retired from the Army last year, Lira maintains critical infrastructure needed to operate radios, antennas and communications systems used by first responders and law enforcement.

Lira began studying at Evergreen in fall 2019, and plans to graduate in winter 2021.

“Evergreen is a good fit for me,” said Lira. “I get a lot out of contact with the faculty and other students.”

Although he prefers in-person classes, Lira has made a smooth transition to a remote spring quarter.

“I did a lot of remote learning in the military, so it will be fine,” he said.

Evergreen’s Prior Learning Through Experience (PLE) program has helped Val Vajda make progress toward her degree while making sure Washington state hospitals are delivering a high standard of care.

Vajda is an essential case manager for the state Department of Health’s office of health system oversight, which tracks and follows up on consumer complaints about hospitals. In some cases, she recommends quick responses to egregious situations, coordinating with federal authorities to enforce standards.

Vajda’s nine years of service at DOH gave her enough professional experience to gain multiple credits through the PLE program. She completed papers on topics such as conflict management and business communication, and hopes to have enough credits to graduate sometime this calendar year.  

“I’d describe my degree focus as social justice,” said Vajda. “Evergreen has inspired me so much, and opened my eyes to many things.” 

Her goal after graduation is to find a policy position where she can advance positive change. In the meantime, Vajda, a union steward, is lobbying the governor’s office for courageous duty pay for state workers.

Evergreen student Stephanie Burgett works at Joint Base Lewis McCord for the Defense Health Agency. She coordinates with military commanders to consolidate health care for various branches of the military, overseeing nursing services and budget.

Burgett graduated from high school in 1999 and says she had been worried about going back to school. She’s been a full-time student at Evergreen since fall 2018.

“Evergreen has turned out to be the perfect fit for me,” she said. “Everyone is so supportive and welcoming.” 

Burgett believes she will complete her degree in two more years, with a focus on business management and human resources.  After that, her goal is to pursue a master’s degree at Baylor University’s Graduate Program in Health and Business Administration, and to enter the Senior Executive Service, which is the top cadre of federal civilian employees.

Lira, Vajda and Burgett are all enrolled this spring quarter in Evergreen faculty Sarah Ryan’s “Justice at Work” class.

“So many of our students are out there every day, doing essential work while studying full time,” said Ryan. “They are making tremendous contributions at a really challenging time.”

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