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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Frontline Health Worker among 2020 UWW Graduates

May 05, 2020

Throughout the spring semester, a typical day for UMass Amherst UWW Degree Completion Program student John Varakuta included the following: driving to the hospital, donning personal protective gear, caring for critically ill patients, returning home exhausted, making a pot of coffee, and buckling down to complete his final semester of coursework.

Twenty-three-year-old John Varakuta of Northampton, Mass. has now graduated from UMass Amherst with a major in Interdisciplinary Studies and a degree concentration in Health Studies through the University Without Walls Degree Completion Program. He has achieved this goal while working full-time on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic as a critical care respiratory therapist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.  

Born and raised in Western Massachusetts to Russian immigrant parents, John knew at an early age he wanted to work in health care. He started working in a hospital cafeteria at the age of sixteen, and after graduating from Easthampton High School went on to earn his associate degree in respiratory therapy from Springfield Technical Community College in 2017.

As a First Generation college student and full-time working adult, John found the support, online courses, and flexibility he needed to complete his degree. “I love the UWW program, and am so grateful for everything it has done for me.” He added, “My professors have been super accommodating and understanding this semester as I balanced completing my assignments with long, stressful work hours.”

After graduation, John will be applying to graduate school to become a physician’s assistant (PA) with a specialty in critical care. “Working in the ICU, and managing breathing machines and ventilators is my life,” he said.

John celebrated his graduation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with his hospital colleagues, his boyfriend, and his family while following social distancing guidelines. When asked what message he wanted to send his fellow graduates as someone on the front line of the pandemic that has upended their senior year, John had this to say, “This is a really tough time, but it’s important to listen to public health experts, support each other in community, power on, and look towards the future, because if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from all this, it’s that life is short.”