SCARBOROUGH — The University of Southern Maine has awarded 50 students who have been working on the frontlines in various capacities during the pandemic with $1,000 scholarships.

Students recognized through the scholarship have served the public during the pandemic in a range of ways, said the university. Among the recipients were student health care professionals, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, retail and grocery employees, child care providers, delivery services workers and transportation providers.

Two Scarborough residents, Hannah Chase and Zachary Harrison, received the scholarship, the university announced.

Chase, a sophomore biology major at USM, said that she appreciates the recognition and extra scholarship. A nursing assistant, she worked during the pandemic at a nursing home and now is employed at Maine Medical Center.

“I work fulltime while I’m in college fulltime, so an extra scholarship was more than welcome,” she said. “I’m completely self-supporting — I live in Scarborough with my boyfriend in an apartment. I can’t even stress enough — I was so excited when I saw that USM was doing the scholarship.”

A call company employee with Scarborough Fire Department, Harrison is a junior history major at USM, focusing on secondary education, he said. He has been with the fire department since high school, starting through the Fire Explorers program with the Boy Scouts.

Zachary Harrison, a University of Southern Maine junior, is a call company member with the Scarborough Fire Department. He received a $1,000 Frontline Scholarship from the university for his contribution to the public during the pandemic. Courtesy photo Zachary Harrison

When the pandemic started, Harrison moved from the dormitories to his home in Scarborough, giving him the opportunity once again to work for the fire department’s call company, he said.

“College nowadays is obviously getting more and more hard to pay for, and I’m very grateful for receiving the scholarship,” Harrison said.

Funding for the scholarships came in a combination of an allocation from the USM Office of the President and private donations, USM said.

President Glenn Cummings said that the school knows how important essential workers are.

“During this period of unprecedented challenges, we have come to understand just how essential these people are to keeping us going — as individuals and as a society,” Cummings said. “It’s only fitting that we recognize the importance of the work they are doing and the risks they are taking by helping to make their college education more affordable.”

Watching his fellow coworkers at the fire department through the pandemic, Harrison has been inspired, he said.

“These past couple of months, seeing my coworkers who are doing the COVID care day in, day out, making trips, having to provide services we always do to the citizens of Scarborough was very humbling,” he said. “COVID is a whole different scenario, something that we’re still trying to figure out as we go along.”

As the pandemic began, the chiefs and captains at the fire department have worked to ensure staff safety, Harrison said. This is the norm, he said, as everyone in the department always “has each others’ backs.”

“I feel that there were some concerns for me at first, but after looking at the plans our chiefs and captains put together, I feel very safe and very confident,” he said.

Working during a pandemic was not what any health care worker or essential employee had “signed up for,” but Chase loves the field and watching patients recover, she said.

“My job is very hard, but I do love what I do,” she said. “I wouldn’t not do it even in a pandemic. I could have gone back to working in a doctor’s office, but what I do now is incredibly important, even more so than it already was.”

Among Chase’s responsibilities at the hospital is taking care of recovering COVID-19 patients, she said.

“There are plenty of times where people get COVID in the hospital and then they don’t have COVID anymore, but they’re certainly not OK,” she said. “Everyone knows there’s a lot of crazy side effects you can get after. It’s been really nice to see those patients get better and stronger and go home because they’ve been through so much.”

As a student, going to class can become difficult when being constantly exposed to COVID patients, Chase said.

“It’s been really hard because there’s been points where I’m like, I can’t go to class because I don’t know if I have COVID or not,” she said. “I actually had to get an extension on some of my finals because I had side effects from getting the vaccine at my job. It definitely impacts a lot of (my education), and I was super, super grateful to USM for doing the scholarship because that’s $1,000 I don’t have to pay out of my pocket.”

Chase also pointed out a distinction between nurse assistants and other health care professionals, saying that she feels like nurse assistants can often be ignored by the public.

“Everyone says, ‘Thank you to our doctors and our nurses,'” she said. “I’m the one who’s physically taking care of these patients. No insult to doctors or nurses, but even in the hospital, I’m the one who’s helping these patients bathe. I’m the one taking them to the bathroom. I’m the one taking their vitals and their blood sugar. I have more sustained close contact with these patients than anyone else, so it’s really nice to be appreciated because it’s a lot of work.”

During the pandemic, the attitude towards essential workers like firefighters has changed, and Harrison would like to see that shift in perspective stay, he said.

“Prior to the pandemic starting, there was always the notion of, ‘Oh yeah, these firefighters, police officers, grocery workers — that’s just their jobs,'” Harrison said. “Almost going on a year now, you’ll see that these first responders, these community services are more important and without them, this whole pandemic would be harder. I hope by the end of the pandemic, when it’s over, there’s still the perception, still the same response for first responders, firefighters, EMTs. We do this all the time, whether it’s a regular Monday morning or a global pandemic.”

After college, Harrison hopes to complete more trainings through the fire department, he said.

“I will say that during these past couple of months, my coworkers at the fire department are doing an amazing job, and they’re doing this while the pandemic is going on,” Harrison said. “Looking back, they’re just amazing. They’re going in every day with the same attitude, same energy that they always do. They’re the people I look up to. It makes me proud to work alongside them and look up to them.”

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