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Life during covid: Westmoreland college professor helps students, families juggle demands

Tribune-Review - 3/1/2021

Feb. 28—Editor's note: This is an occasional series examining how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the lives of members of our community.

It might have been a matter of life experience or natural resiliency, but whatever it was, Cheryl Miller was positioned to thrive when the coronavirus sent the world spinning.

Prior to the pandemic shutdown, the 55-year-old Natrona Heights resident commuted 84 miles a day to her office at Westmoreland County Community College in Hempfield. She oversees the college's Health Care Management program and has taught there since 2009.

When the campus closed during the shutdown last spring, Miller had just days to react.

But she has long accepted change as a challenge. She has reinvented herself repeatedly as life demanded.

A single mother with a 25-year-old daughter, she started her professional life as a teacher, earning a special education degree at California University of Pennsylvania. When she moved to Washington, D.C., and couldn't find a teaching job, she taught English to Hebrew-speaking students at a private school. Along the way she earned an associate's degree in gerontology, the study of aging.

As a young mother in Arizona juggling multiple responsibilities two time zones away from her Western Pennsylvania roots, she managed to earn two master's degrees — an MBA and a master's in health care administration — and started her own business.

At WCCC, Miller manages a program that offers highly sought-after medical coding certificates and degree. She still operates her medical billing business and has learned to teach via Zoom from the home she shares with her 84-year-old father, who has Alzheimer's disease. She also steps in from time to time as a driver for her daughter, a nurse who suffers from debilitating migraines.

Preliminary reports on the changing nature of work in the pandemic world suggest the kind of multiple roles Miller juggles — balancing work and family obligations — is taking a toll.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 2.5 million women have left the workforce in the last year. The New York Times quoted Vice President Kamala Harris addressing the issue in a video call with national women's groups.

"In one year, the pandemic has put decades of the progress we have collectively made for women workers at risk," Harris said, calling the trend a national emergency.

Miller shares those concerns.

She has spent years teaching and counseling women seeking credentials to advance in the workplace and build a better life for their children. Over the last year, she's tapped a lifetime of skills acquired during uphill battles to help her students adapt to a changing world.

While many long for the world to return to "normal," Miller focuses her efforts on playing the hand that life has dealt her and helping her students do likewise.

"You don't live a productive life fighting the system," Miller said.

As the pandemic set in, Miller set about altering her teaching methods and engaging with students in her medical coding classes online. She said many of them are single mothers who used to juggle child care demands, arrange for sitters and drive an hour or more to take courses leading to certification for work that is in demand across the country.

Now, they Zoom from home for evening classes with a teacher who has been where many of them are now.

Her classes range from introduction to health care management to advanced classes that prepare students for the national coding test.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for qualified medical and billing coders will continue to grow by 8% over the next decade. With a median salary of about $43,000 a year, coding is an attractive field for many seeking a leg up in the workforce.

Miller said it's not unusual for her to see a student working on coding assignments with a baby sleeping nearby.

"I see them running in and out, with their dogs and cats and kids running in and out," she said.

While some teachers might consider that an insult, Miller said she realizes it's just part of life.

She times the evening break in class so mothers can put toddlers down for the night. And when they've come to her complaining about the difficulty trying to learn from home, she often finds time to offer a few hints that might help improve their learning environment.

"I've been there. I know what they're going through. This is a community college. We have to meet our students where they live," she said.

Westmoreland President Tuesday Stanley said she's come to know Miller through her advocacy work with the faculty union and on a variety of projects at the college, including onr that steers talented students to undergraduate research opportunities.

"She's tireless. Her advocacy for her students, her willingness to listen to them, to help them is outstanding," Stanley said. "Not only does she ensure they have the resources they need to achieve in school, she makes sure they have what they need to achieve in life. If she sees they need something, she will hook them up with an agency or someone who can help.

"Students love that. They know when you care. They know when you are sincere and she is."

Although she is excited for her students and their prospects, Miller concedes that dealing with the pandemic hasn't been a picnic.

"Covid has been a fine little friend," she said.

Her daughter had to cancel her November wedding. It was a disappointment, but she's hoping to reschedule it later this year. And her father's age and illness have forced Miller to limit their interaction with the world beyond the ranch house they share.

"Living with Alzheimer's has taught me to live in the moment and not look too far down the road," she said.

Several months ago, she took on yet another role when her daughter, a nurse at a local personal care home, shared her concerns about an elderly couple whose family had been unable to step into the breach during the pandemic. Miller became their guardian and a regular part of their lives. Last month, she planned a funeral when the husband died of covid.

"They have given me unconditional love. I'm as blessed to have had them in my life as they are with me," she said.

Nurturing a sense of gratitude has been an important part of keeping her grounded during covid, Miller said.

"I try to write a handwritten letter once a week to someone in my life to tell them how important they are," she said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, or via Twitter .


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