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Com studies 'superheroes' shape student for next level

May 27, 2011

While their superhuman strength may be suspect, they do command extraordinary powers. They can’t fly, and bolts of lightning aren’t a part of their legendary skill set. They do not wear armored suits, but they bring the latest technology to the game.

They are “Team Com,” a group of super-dedicated Arizona State University New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences faculty in the communication studies graduate degree program who seek out students; teach, mentor and prepare them for the next level; and have earned legendary status among their head-of-the-classroom peers. One of their most recent success stories will testify to their amazing powers.

Nicki Piemonte, who received her master’s in the com studies program last December, has seen Team Com in action and believes the unit rescued her from indecision and helped her plot a course that has led to her enrollment in the one-of-a-kind-in-the-U.S. Ph.D. program in medical humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in August; from com studies to an eventual career in medical humanities and healthcare communications.

“The faculty in the com studies program was so supportive from the start,” say Piemonte, who earned her B.A. in English literature at ASU’s West campus in 2008. “They fostered my growth, they challenged me, and my preparedness for the next level is a result of their program.”

Piemonte’s story is one part inspirational, one part aspirational, and a third part motivational.

An honor student with a 4.0 GPA out of Greenway High School in nearby Glendale, Piemonte enrolled at the West campus in 2004 with a four-year Provost’s Scholarship in hand and an eye on a teaching degree. She found a greater challenge, she says, in her English classes, and soon switched her major to that subject, along with a minor in communication. The ball was rolling nicely, and Piemonte even received a lunch invite from her Shakespeare course teacher Mary Bjork, an assistant professor in the New College Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies.

“I was surprised to think that a professor would ask me to lunch,” says Piemonte. “She sat down with me and encouraged me to think seriously about graduate school. I hadn’t given it a thought prior to that. She showed confidence in me and was very supportive; she planted the seed.”

In her senior year Piemonte’s mother, Joy, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the student’s world was turned upside down. She decided her eventual pursuit of a graduate degree would take place at the West campus, so that she could be close to her ailing mom and provide the necessary caregiving. Because she had minored in com studies, Piemonte decided to make the subject her advanced degree of choice. Once enrolled, she continued to balance her studies with her caregiving responsibilities at home, but Joy’s health took a turn for the worse after a six-month period of remission. Despite her mom’s encouragement to continue her schooling, Piemonte had reached a crossroads. Joy passed away in August 2009.

“I really didn’t know who I was, other than my mother’s caregiver,” remembers Piemonte, whose father, Ralph, is vice president of a local food brokerage, and older brother Chris provides technical support to a Valley retailer.

It was then that a pair of com studies faculty members, Doug Kelley and Vince Waldron, reached out to her with their recommendation that she return to school.

“They sent me emails and called me,” says Piemonte of the professors, both com studies mentors. “They told me that I could leave, but that it wasn’t healthy to wallow. If they hadn’t reached out to me, I would never have returned to school.”

Next in line was Carla Fisher, an assistant professor in the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences whose research focuses on how intergenerational family communication is connected to wellness. Piemonte wasn’t sure Fisher’s CMN 598 course, The Intersection between Family Communication and Health Across the Lifespan, was such a good idea, concerned that the class was covering topics like the mother/daughter relationship in the cancer context, caregiving and death/dying, and grief.

Fisher convinced her otherwise, telling the student that the class and research opportunities available would help her process her recent experience with her mother’s cancer battle.

“Reading the research I felt validated,” says Piemonte, who is currently substitute teaching in the Glendale Union High School District while also heading an oral history/storytelling graduate course on the West campus. “I thought, yes, this was my experience with my mom, but also that there were areas that hadn’t been explored; we think of caregiving in terms of the elderly, but that’s not always the case and it wasn’t in mine.”

Within two weeks of her mother’s death, Piemonte was in the throes of a 40-page autoethnography, a form of writing that makes the author’s own experience a topic of the research itself. “I incorporated my school research with Dr. Fisher into my own personal experience with my mom. It was cathartic. It was incredibly personal, but I felt I had to do it as a researcher and as someone who wanted to contribute to the subject matter.” With encouragement from Kelly and Fisher, Piemonte expanded her work into a 130-page master’s thesis that studied support groups – or the lack thereof – for young caregivers, while comparing the experiences of the younger providers she could find with her own.

“You realize the contradictions in caregiving,” says Piemonte, who married her husband, Rane, in her mother’s hospital room with his mom conducting the ceremony. “You feel torn; you don’t expect your parent to die, and you don’t want to let go.

“What I found in researching young caregivers was there were dialectical tensions involved,” she says. “Mine was holding on versus letting go; for young caregivers there is also the sacrifice they make versus the reward of service. I realized through my research and through working with Dr. Fisher that my interest was in health communication.”
Piemonte’s “life tiles” – her two-and-a-half-year caregiving service, her mother’s courageous fight, her pursuit of higher education – and the guidance provided by New College mentors and West campus Barrett Honors College Dean Ramsey Eric Ramsey led the student to a recognition that well-being is based on communication, be it with doctors, family, the patient; she was embracing a more holistic approach to healthcare. Her communication studies experience provided the aspirational nudge that led her to apply to three Ph.D. programs focused on her interests – Ohio University, George Mason University and University of Texas Medical Branch. The Ohio and Mason doctoral offerings were communication programs focused on health, while the UTMB degree was specific to medical humanities. She was accepted by all three, and chose the Galveston-based opportunity.

“Health communication and medical humanities are related,” she says while discussing her motivation to pack and up and move to the Lone Star State. “I like the idea of studying the practice of medicine through the humanities; through philosophy, literature, theology. In my English lit classes, humanities are at the forefront, while com studies is a social science, so I have a blend of both.”

Piemonte’s move from communication studies to medicine is not so surprising, according to Jeff Kassing, her instructor in qualitative methodologies and director of the New College degree program.

“Nicki is very bright and committed to her education,” says Kassing, who came to New College in 1998 and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in organizational, applied and environmental communication.

“She brings a bit of compassion to the work she does, which at times is missing from academic thinking an research; he continues.  “She will benefit from our unique curriculum in advocacy, which will be important as she delves further into the topics of medical humanities and medical ethics."

“She is one in a growing list of students who have left our program to pursue Ph.D.s,” Kassing says. “New College is well respected in the field as a place that trains students well for the next level. We regularly place students in Ph.D. programs with funding; it’s an interesting facet of our program that has emerged over the years.”

Piemonte’s well-rounded intellect, she says, is what impressed UTMB. She adds that her graduate upbringing in New College was the key ingredient. “The faculty here is very diverse, and they have their hands in everything, in different places,” she says. “If the faculty wasn’t so diverse, I wouldn’t be prepared for UTMB. I got what UTMB wants through my work with New College faculty and mentors. There are so many people who have helped me, encouraged me and inspired me to take the next step.”

And does she believe they are superheroes?

“It’s not a stretch at all,” she laughs. “Maybe like Superman with no kryptonite. I have not seen any weaknesses; they’re super!”