A COVID-19 Hero
How do you tell a student that they have to quarantine because they have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19?
During the 2020–21 academic year at UMass Amherst, 50 student contact tracers handled this thorny task. Parker Sweet ’21, ’22MPH was the operations manager of the university’s contact tracing force, helping to supervise and support the team. His prior work as a contact tracer for the state of Massachusetts, his years as a resident assistant, and his studies had readied him for that leadership challenge.
“Parker was terrific at giving people really bad news,” says Ann Becker, codirector of the UMass Amherst Public Health Promotion Center. The center relied upon UMass Amherst students for massive COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and vaccination efforts that saw the campus through the 2020–2021 academic year.
Becker also noted Sweet’s authoritative manner of speaking and polished presence. “He has a reassuring manner,” she says.
As Sweet reflects on this experience via Zoom from his family home in Northampton, Mass., he wears a business suit and a UMass maroon tie—attire that reminds him of the seriousness of his role. “Managing the contact tracers was the apex of my undergraduate career,” he says.
He encouraged contact tracers to speak to their fellow students in a nonjudgmental tone and to understand why some students were reluctant to reveal with whom they had been in contact. “There’s nuance involved in encouraging students to open up,” he points out.
For his contact tracing work, his student leadership, and his civic engagement, Sweet was named as one of 29 Who Shine, a group of outstanding 2021 Massachusetts public college and university graduates honored by Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.
As Sweet takes pains to stress, that honor reflects the efforts of all students on campus who worked to combat COVID-19. His accomplishment also attests to the success of the UMass Amherst Emerging Scholars program. In his first year at UMass Amherst, Sweet was a member of this year-long program for students on the cusp of admission to Commonwealth Honors College. As he took classes with 15 other emerging scholars, he also lived with them in the Melville residence hall. These friends gave him a vital sense of belonging. “We are very diverse in terms of backgrounds and lived experiences,” he says. “The program allows you to learn about yourself and others, and develop skills to work across differences. For me, it was absolutely formative; the program made me aware of my potential.”
The Emerging Scholars program gave Sweet the opportunity to study abroad in the Dominican Republic. His work there in a community health clinic set him on a path to study equitable health policy in order to combat global health disparities.
Through Emerging Scholars, Sweet gained acceptance to Commonwealth Honors College and became one of its peer ambassadors. In addition, he was an undergraduate research assistant for a political science professor, a co-instructor for a contact tracing practicum, and a teaching assistant.
In fall 2021, while pursuing his master’s degree in public health, he will be busy serving as an assistant residence director, a teaching assistant in a health policy course, and a teacher of a School of Public Health and Health Sciences discovery seminar for first-year students. “I love helping students navigate the transition to college,” he says. Eventually, Sweet plans to pursue a PhD in either public health or political science.
Aimee Gilbert Loinaz, assistant director for internships and employer engagement for the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, who has known Sweet since he was a sophomore, says, “I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next. He’s serious and trustworthy with a strong sense of collegiality. He uses his amazing leadership skills in a compassionate manner and genuinely cares about people.”
Happily, this summer there has been a light caseload for campus COVID-19 contact tracers. Sweet is working for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps and, in his free time, cooking for his family. When it comes to food, he has the same intensity that he demonstrated as an Emerging Scholar and as an involved UMass Amherst undergraduate. “I like to cook from a regional palate,” he says. “This week I’ve been concentrating on Levantine cuisine. I enjoy learning how the food relates to the multifaceted culture and traditions of a place.”