SDSU alumna working hard to keep us safe


Jordan Rusche, Lifestyles Editor

The new guidelines, such as social distancing in classrooms and JacksRBack kits, can be attributed to a variety of hard-working individuals. This includes the new public health specialist, an entirely new position to SDSU created to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Laura Dirks, SDSU’s public health specialist, is an alumna of SDSU, graduating in 2017 with an undergrad in chemistry and biochemistry. Afterwards, she began pursuing her master’s degree at the Rollings School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. She said she was inspired to do so because of one of her minors, health communication.

“I always wanted to work in outbreak and response, and that’s actually what I tailored my education to at Emory,” she said.

With the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “right across the street,” she began training in how to respond to potential outbreaks and diseases, working with student organizations like the Student Outbreak and Response Team (SORT) and serving as part of the medical reserve corps that planned for Super Bowl LIII, also held in Atlanta. She graduated in May 2020 and accepted the position of public health specialist here this June.

Dirks, ready to help plan for the upcoming semester, eagerly returned to her former college.

“I loved the university, I loved my time here, so the chance to work in an area I was familiar with—I know the dorms, I know the campus— that was also a draw for me,” she said.

She also explained that as a former SDSU student herself, she empathized with those students who had to leave campus in mid-March and wanted to help them return to school safely.

“I also went home for spring break and never returned to campus,” Dirks said, “so, I understand that feeling.”

So far, Dirks has offered her expertise to campus by serving as a member of both the COVID-19 Response Team and JacksRBack team, helping to organize and plan what academics, student life and other public health elements would be like coming back in the fall. Her biggest solo project included planning training for employees and students.

“I’m so fortunate to join an institution … [where] there were so many individuals who already were focused and already working on these things, and they really cared about students’ and employees’ safety,” she said.

With the nature of her work, however, there are some parts of Dirks’ job that aren’t always so pleasant. She explained that attempting to balance implementing health guidelines while still giving students the opportunity to learn and interact in person proved to be a very difficult task at times.

“We know students want to be on campus, and we want students on campus, so just figuring out the best ways to do that is certainly the most difficult part,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Dirks enjoys seeing everyone back to campus wearing face coverings and following the guidelines she helped to put forth, and says that it shows her that students care about returning to SDSU.

While the future of this semester is still unknown at this time, Dirks does have some advice for those students who may feel unsure of these new changes and returning to school amid the pandemic.

“It is really important to take care of both your physical and mental health this semester,” she said. “Do your best to maintain a daily schedule, stay active and connect with friends and family in a safe way either in person or virtually.”

She recommends reaching out to faculty, friends and other people here on campus if students are feeling stress or anxiety due to current events as well.

“Reach out to your instructors, advisors and classmates if you need,” Dirks said. “And if your stress or anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life, schedule a virtual appointment with Student Health counseling staff.”