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‘We wanted students to be the face of this operation’: Students bond over jobs at testing center

| Friday, March 26, 2021

During the first week the University implemented saliva testing in September, about 200 saliva tests were collected per day in a tent outside of McCourtney Hall. From March 17 to March 23, over 15,000 saliva tests were administered inside the Joyce Center. 

With the saliva surveillance testing program growing from its early stages inside of a tent into a full-blown operation inside the Joyce Center, Director of Finance and Administration for Notre Dame Research Joanna McNulty credited one group for being indispensable to the dramatic increase in saliva testing: student employees. 

“I don’t see how we would be able to staff [the testing center] without quite an expense to the University because we’d be having to hire full-time employees with benefits,” McNulty said. 

The increase in testing capacity has led to an increase in student hires. Senior and COVID-19 surveillance student manager Kiara Gallagher said three student employees typically worked at a time in the McCourtney tent when saliva testing started. Now, up to 12 student workers are on the floor at the Joyce Center at once. Gallagher estimated that 55 students were employed at the beginning of the spring semester. That number has almost doubled with over 100 students currently working in the saliva testing operation.

Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
January 29, 2021; Student COVID surveillance testing prior to start of Spring semester 2021. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

The student workers rotate through three main jobs when working: checking students in as they enter, labeling tubes and receiving the samples and delivering them to the basement of McCourtney Hall to be processed.

Gallagher said students have the freedom to choose when they work. There is no set time commitment, and they can pick their shift by the hour.

“We are totally flexible, and that was kind of our goal with the scheduling because students are obviously students first,” she said. 

Even with saliva testing available from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the weekends, Gallagher said the student workers hold themselves accountable to ensure the center is always staffed. 

McNulty credited the student workers with playing a large role in streamlining the testing procedures. When the testing center moved to the Joyce Center in early October, students only had a weekend to move the entire operation indoors. The workers not only set up the new testing center, but they also designed last semester’s floor layout.

“They knew what was working and what wasn’t working,” McNulty said. “They were so proactive in thinking about how we could make this work. I was so grateful to have them.” 

One of Gallagher’s responsibilities as a supervisor is to communicate student feedback to the staff. Gallagher said the feedback from the student employees is valuable because they often understand the flow of traffic as well as or better than the staff does due to their experiences working and getting tested.

While a majority of the student workers are in the College of Science, majors of the workers span across colleges. There are no pre-requisites for the job, and students of all grades are able to apply.

Sophomore Ellie Temeles said working in the testing center has provided her with a unique opportunity to meet a diverse group of students. 

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to meet students from all different backgrounds,” Temeles said. “I’ve been able to become friends with seniors and juniors and freshmen, just people that I would have never met outside of the job.”

The testing team emphasizes building camaraderie among the employees. For Gallagher, creating a light-hearted and communal atmosphere is crucial to providing the best possible work environment. The staff recently held an employee appreciation week for the student employees. Each day they gave the student workers gifts and offered fun gestures to celebrate their time working in the testing center.

Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
March 1, 2021; Student workers in the university surveillance testing facility pause for a photo at their desks underneath a “Thank You” banner and balloons. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Gallagher said the testing team made it a priority to have students run the operation. Their goal was to have the student workers set an example for the campus community to support the campus COVID-19 policies in order to keep people safe. 

“We wanted students to be the face of this operation,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher and Temeles didn’t enter college expecting to be part of the University’s response to a global pandemic, but they both cherish the unique opportunity it has provided them to be a part of a public health effort.

“Obviously I think this was a great opportunity, and I couldn’t have predicted being in this position,” Gallagher said. “But I think the most important thing is that we’re contributing to the safety of the campus community.”

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About Ryan Peters

Ryan is a sophomore in Knott Hall who hails from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is majoring in marketing and — temporarily — political science. He currently serves as an associate news editor for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @peterrsryan.

Contact Ryan