Jessica Guerra 2020 Outstanding Undergraduate

Public Health Student and EMT Jessica Guerra Is Good With Chaos

December 14, 2020

True, Jessica Guerra isn’t technically graduating this December, but she’s celebrating the major milestone nonetheless.

For this outstanding public health grad who isn’t graduating just yet, the end is still very nearly in sight. That’s what it feels like when you have completed all of your undergraduate requirements for a five-year, bachelor’s plus master’s degree program. But, as a frontline worker, Guerra might not have much free time to dwell on the particulars.

Dedication That Doesn’t Stop

For the past six years, she has worked at Porter Adventist Hospital as a full-time emergency medical technician (EMT). A few years into her career as an EMT, she decided to add being a full-time CU Denver student to her busy schedule, too. And, in her final year as an undergraduate, her study of epidemiology blurred inseparably into her hospital duties when the COVID-19 pandemic became a daily norm for everyone.

How did Guerra make it work?

“You find a chaotic balance. If you work in the ER, you’re good with chaos anyways,” Guerra says simply.

That balance consisted of working 12-hour, overnight shifts at the hospital, going straight from work to class, then finally going home and repeating the balance all over again. “But I loved doing both things, so I was able to pull it off.”

Guerra is being modest. She didn’t just pull it off; she showed the kind of extraordinary dedication that CU Denver Lynx are known for. Hers might be the clearest example in recent memory of what it means to be a Lynx, to do it all and finish strong, no matter the difficulty—all while helping others.

Unshakeable Focus

Born and raised in Denver, Guerra’s recollections of her first days on campus might not be what you would expect from such a courageous individual.

“It was kind of intimidating at first because there are so many people here. But it’s the best place to be to study public health. It’s strange… It’s such a large campus, but my public health professors were great at making everyone feel included. That’s the strength of the public health program.”

Guerra’s interest in pursuing the Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program’s epidemiology focus at the height of the pandemic was a timely coincidence. It had been her career ambition for years. “I was ahead of the curve, no pun intended,” she jokes wryly. Recalling those first classes, she described her initial reaction to the coursework as, “This is fantastic, this is horribly interesting—I can’t let this go!”

Her infectious enthusiasm for her epidemiological studies has not gone unnoticed, and Guerra was named one of two Outstanding Undergraduates by her department.

Read Outstanding Undergraduate award winner Austin Chavez’s story here.

Bravery That Deserves To Be Celebrated

Guerra’s work had well-prepared her to push forward during times of crisis, and her education gave her a better grasp of the pandemic, but, like the rest of us, she isn’t immune to the broader effects of it. Though the pivot to virtual learning posed little challenge to this forward-looking student, she does regret not being able to connect with her capstone cohort in person. “I missed some of that camaraderie. There’s a small sense of community that’s lost.”

Guerra offers advice, though, for anyone else feeling isolated:

“Being vulnerable and transparent is one of the bravest things a person can do. In a time where isolation is guaranteed, reaching out is paramount, and as many shocking things I have witnessed, I have been equally shocked by people’s understanding.”

“Give people a chance to shock you with their kindness and understanding. And if you’ve taken the step to reach out to others when you need them during this time, your bravery certainly deserves to be celebrated.”

Jessica Guerra, left, and her wife, Christina Erpelding, right, pictured in their wedding dresses earlier this year. Guerra and Erpelding, who is completing her master’s in counseling at CU Denver, will receive their graduate degrees together in 2021.

Looking Forward

Guerra will complete her graduate studies at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz, so 2020 marks the end of her time at CU Denver. After graduation, you can expect her to continue helping those in the Denver community.

“I want to stay here and see what I can do, even though my degree has a global emphasis,” Guerra says.

Heroes need help too, sometimes, and Guerra credits Research Associate Professor Jean Scandlyn, PhD, who teaches in the Anthropology Department, for her tremendous support. “I honestly can say she is the most compassionate professor who truly goes above and beyond for us as students. She is a treasure.”

Regarding that celebration Guerra deserves, her plans are understandably a bit subdued. “It feels like I’m not really done until next year, but I think I’m going to have a special dinner at home to remind myself. I should be graduating right now, but… I still need to make that switch in my mind.”

“As a public health practitioner, I will strive to teach, listen, and truly make those near me feel visible.”

–Jessica Guerra ’20, MPH ’21