The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and shift to mostly remote instruction gave many students pause about starting, or returning, to college. Not Shawna Heurgue.
The Springfield mother of three had been struggling to transition into a new career after leaving her longtime job as an emergency room nurse. But the thought of returning to a college campus, surrounded by people 20 years younger than her, always felt daunting, Heurgue said.
So, when COVID arrived and the UO switched to remote learning, Heurgue jumped at the opportunity to kickstart her education, fully online, from the more comfortable setting of her bedroom.
“I thought, ‘This is my opportunity and I’m going to take it. I’m going to finally get my bachelor’s degree and I’m going to do it in a year,’” she said. “It just felt perfect.”
Heurgue registered three days before spring term classes began, kicking off a whirlwind 15 months for her. After taking five straight terms of 20 or more credits, she graduated earlier this month with her bachelor’s degree in sociology and general social science, all while juggling her family, part-time work for the UO, as well as perhaps her biggest passion: helping people.
But she didn’t stop there. Now she’s at work on a master’s in conflict resolution, and along the way she’s helped people across the university develop a deeper understanding of the issues and problems facing people dealing with homelessness and mental health problems. To top it off, she’s helping the UO address equity and inclusion and is working with a community agency to provide crisis intervention training on campus.
Heurgue, now 44, has been helping people, in one way or another, almost as long as she can remember. At 14, she began assisting Lane County Search and Rescue. By the time she graduated high school, she had accumulated more than 2,000 hours of volunteer service including work with the local unhoused community and at the hospital.
She then worked in various roles at the emergency room for years before earning her nursing degree. Heurgue says that, for more than a decade, she enjoyed her work in the ER and the bond that nurses form as a part of a team. But constantly seeing people in health crises eventually started to take its toll physically and mentally, she said.
Heurgue decided she needed out in 2019. She was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t think it bothered me until it did,” she said. “Now I can hardly talk about some things I saw without starting to cry.”
With her specialized associate’s degree, Heurgue struggled to find work in the Eugene-Springfield area. Among other unsuccessful job applications, she painfully remembers being rejected from a cashier’s position as “overqualified.”
Heurgue says she was “wallowing in my sorrow a bit” when COVID-19 hit and the opportunity to return to school arose.
While she had planned to be laser-focused on school, outside issues started erupting all around her that she felt she couldn’t ignore: the murder of George Floyd in May, the growth of the local unhoused population spurred by the pandemic, and the Holiday Farm wildfire along the nearby McKenzie River that displaced hundreds of people.
Heurgue became involved with Black Unity Eugene, a local anti-police-brutality protest group. She volunteered with the White Bird Clinic, providing medical assistance and supplies to the local unhoused community. During the Holiday Farm Fire when smoke cloaked Eugene for a week, she saw a need and helped organized a fundraiser that raised $3,800 to provide supplies and other support for the local unhoused population to deal with the poor air quality.
“I just kind of keep going out and making friends and getting involved in more things,” Heurgue said. “I have a passion for loving those others may see as unlovable, for seeing someone and having them know that I saw them. I believe that just recognizing their humanity can be really helpful.”
During her time at the UO, Heurgue has become more and more involved in the policy and solutions side of the issues she’s passionate about.
This spring, working with the UO Undergraduate Sociology Club, she facilitated a webinar panel discussion on local homelessness, featuring three Eugene city councilors, nonprofit service providers, representatives of the Eugene Springfield Fire Department, and several unhoused or previously unhoused people.
“I was inspired by my public policy classes to work on the issue from a different perspective,” she said. “I wanted to spur an organic, frank conversation with people providing their insights and hopefully helping to spur better collaboration between our local service providers.”
Heurgue also signed up to be a student representative on the UO Police Department’s new Diversity Equity and Inclusion Oversight Committee. This fall, in partnership with CAHOOTS, a nationally recognized local program that provides crisis intervention services as an alternative to police, Heurgue is helping to coordinate crisis intervention training for UO staff and student employees in as many as 20 different departments.
What started as a training Heurgue offered within the Office of the Dean of Students has blossomed as more and more departments asked to sign up, she said. More than 200 people are now scheduled to take part, although Heurgue’s ambitious goal is to have every UO employee eventually take part.
“I want everyone equipped with the skills to feel comfortable in a very uncomfortable space of dealing with someone who is in the middle of a mental health crisis,” Heurgue said. “I’m used to it, but it’s still always uncomfortable when someone is screaming in your face. But when you understand trauma and remove yourself from it, you can realize they’re just a person having a bad day.”
Maria Kalnbach, a nontraditional and veteran student engagement and success coordinator at the UO, hired Heurgue this spring. She said she’s been impressed with the efforts she’s made to connect the UO and its students and employees with the Eugene-Springfield community and the issues it faces.
“Shawna was deeply rooted in the Eugene-Springfield area before she got here,” Kalnback said. “Not only has she given back here before, but now with the help of UO and higher education, she’s going to be able to give back locally in a different, greater way, thanks to her new skills and learning.”
Heurgue had planned to reenter the job market after earning her bachelor’s degree, but she decided this spring to pursue her master’s degree in conflict resolution through the UO School of Law instead. She hopes to eventually find a career in the legal field, either working towards the goals of restorative justice or in arbitration and mediation.
“I can’t say enough about my educational experience this time around,” she said. “You don’t learn as well as when you’re 18, 19, 20, in my opinion. The knowledge I’ve learned this time around seems to stick more. I use it every day.”
—By Saul Hubbard, University Communications