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An Education on the Front Lines

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Allie Conlin

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the lives of people around the globe in countless ways. But it’s arguably those who’ve been on the front lines—the essential workers—who have interacted with and witnessed the virus’s effects the most intensely. Allie Conlin is one of those workers.

Just a year-and-a-half after graduating from the U of M, she’s already stepping into a leadership role in long-term care facilities. Employed as a Leader in Training with Presbyterian Homes since January of 2020, Allie describes her experience so far as being equal parts challenging and rewarding. “This has been one of the most eye-opening experiences I've ever had in my entire life,” she says. “It's something that I will take with me and apply to my future career as a healthcare administrator and beyond.”

Finding Her Place in Long-Term Care

Allie Conlin

Allie didn’t always know that she was meant to have a career in long-term care. When she first transferred to the U of M, she imagined she’d become a doctor. But after taking a few of the basic science courses, she realized it just wasn’t for her. She pivoted her approach to a Health Services Management major instead, which would allow her to keep her focus on health care while pursuing the administrative and business side of the industry. From there, it only took a couple of introductory courses in long term care and interactions with executive leaders in long-term care administration to turn her attention to this as a career path.

Allie got an operations internship with Ecumen, a nonprofit senior housing and services organization, over the summer before her senior year of college. That experience working with seniors solidified her conviction that long-term care was her calling.

“Having had grandparents residing in nursing homes while living with Alzheimer's and dementia and caring for those individuals when I was a Certified Nursing Assistant, it just came together,” Allie says. “That internship with Ecumen was my first all-in experience in long-term care.”

After graduating from the U, Allie hit the ground running with a human resources director position at Monarch Healthcare Management. While doing that, she continued taking Long Term Care Administration coursework at the U of M to prepare for licensure. Taking courses and learning firsthand from professionals in the long-term care field prepared Allie for a role that would make use of her skills and knowledge.

On the Front Lines

In January of 2020, Allie landed a new job as a Leader in Training with Presbyterian Homes & Services. The role was designed to prepare her in every way to become a nursing home administrator. Little did she know that two short months after she started that job, she’d be face-to-face with a public health crisis—a baptism by fire to kick off her career.

“Suddenly, we were in the heart of a pandemic,” Allie recalls. “I wasn’t rattled, though. It just motivated me to step up and do everything I could. It may sound contradictory, but the challenge that COVID-19 brought heightened the impact I felt I could have. I’ve had more opportunities and more eye-opening experiences because of the pandemic. The stories that unfolded right before my eyes will make me a better administrator in the future.”

"It may sound contradictory, but the challenge that COVID-19 brought heightened the impact I felt I could have. I’ve had more opportunities and more eye-opening experiences because of the pandemic. The stories that unfolded right before my eyes will make me a better administrator in the future."

Working up to 60 hours a week at times and wearing layer upon layer of protective equipment, Allie was stationed at a total of four long term care facilities over the course of the first three months of the pandemic. And through it all, on those front lines, she saw the full gamut of human emotion. She was devastated by the heartache of losing some residents who contracted the virus, and was challenged to rise in compassion when speaking with their socially distanced families. At the same time, she was heartened by moments of joy—celebrating a 100-year birthday, honoring veterans on Veterans Day, sharing warm meals, and participating in daily acts of kindness like painting nails a bright color or listening to residents reminisce. She coordinated FaceTime calls and virtual connectivity with residents’ families so that they could feel less alone.

Still, the darkest days fell in the springtime. Allie recalls that was when there was a spike in COVID cases. “Everyone was just so isolated and we unfortunately did lose a lot of people,” she says. “Those few months, March through May, were very rough, not only for our building, but for a majority of long-term care buildings across the country. I spent many long days and long nights there with staff, residents, and their families.”

So far, Allie herself has not contracted the virus. And she’s grateful for that since she lives with her grandma and aunt. She attributes her safety to the protocol that her employer put in place and the level of seriousness that she and other frontline staff bring to the public health crisis.

What Lies Ahead

Allie is in the midst of taking her state licensure exams to be a licensed nursing home administrator in Minnesota. After that, she will sit for her national exams. And all the while, she’s refreshing her mind on all the valuable things she’s learned in both her Long Term Care Administration courses and Health Services Management coursework, as well as the indelible experiences she’s gained while working in long term care during the pandemic. 

“I'm only 23 years old. I've been out of college less than two years, and to know this is where I want to be is the best feeling, but it’s also a little scary,” Allie says. “I found my place and fell into my calling. I wouldn't want to work with any other population than the older population.”

Allie’s Advice to Others Interested in Long Term Care

“You can always try it out. Long-term care isn't for everyone. And I’d like to tell those looking into this field that it's okay not to know. Also, students in HSM, and at CCAPS in general, should use the resources there. Reach out to your academic advisors or program directors and develop relationships with people. This was key to my college success and to my actual professional successes after graduation.”

 

Allie is a recipient of a CCAPS Scholarship.