Laurel Christensen (MSW 2021)

The Collective Experience
Laurel Christiansen headshot

Raised in New Mexico, Laurel Christensen knows how to handle the heat but the COVID pandemic brought with it unexpected personal and academic challenges. On a broader level, however, it deepened her understanding of the resulting, universal stress and grief that has affected the entire global community.

Daughter of an engineer father and an engineer math teacher, Laurel never doubted her abilities in mathematics when she earned a BS from James Madison University and an MS from New Mexico University. As a math educator, she was spurred by a desire to expand her teaching experience by volunteering with her husband’s youth pastor program to manage high adventure camps for families with children affected by intellectual and developmental disabilities. Leading group discussions with these families highlighted an untapped desire to become an agent of change.

While her time at these special camps opened the way to a possible career change, the event that triggered a permanent shift in her life’s trajectory was a family illness. Airlifted from Albuquerque to a Phoenix hospital with her baby son in an urgent mission to save his life, Laurel received a visit from the medical social worker who knew the just right questions to ask and offered appropriate solutions to ease the burden.

“The hospital social worker offered solutions to practical considerations before I recognized that I needed help. He even offered to sit with my son so I could go to the cafeteria for a meal. I eventually understood that his solution-based approach appealed to my problem-solving math brain which then led to a new dream of becoming the social worker who makes the worst day of your life a little better.”

Researching social work master’s programs, Laurel looked at over twenty online university options but chose UNH Online because it offered a concentration in Intellectual and Development Disabilities, knowledge critical to success in human services. In the midst of the program studies, the COVID crisis abruptly halted her field internship which threw her entire educational plan into an undetermined status. Despite the setback, Christensen graduated with a master’s degree from UNH in 2021.

“It’s incredible how easily our student cohort forged friendships through online communication. Dubbing ourselves 'The COVID Cohort,' we came together during Zoom sessions to share our joys, fears, and frustrations. Even discussions about the best face mask became heated as we all reacted to the pressure! But this unprecedented combination of events left me uniquely positioned for the post-pandemic world of social work.”

A silver lining to the global health crisis, she believes that our newly gained collective understanding of the importance of good mental health has reached a pivotal moment that will drive research and progress on every level of society, especially around the experience of grief and loss on a previously unimaginable scale.

“Grief is a universal experience but the sudden realization of its vulnerability sometimes makes others uncomfortable and unwilling to engage with your own loss. During the pandemic we all lost the world we thought we could trust and this collective grief has forever changed the way we work with the world.”

Her combined love of research and human services aligns with Laurel’s pending job as a social worker in Pediatric Hematology & Oncology at the University of New Mexico Hospital. Excited to play an active role in shaping policies and care practices with the Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition, she carries a firm commitment to improving access to much-needed pediatric hospice care in her state. With an eye to the future, Christensen is considering further education with a Ph.D. that will allow her to dive into new research and explore exciting opportunities.

As a graduate student, Laurel worked part-time in a local winery where she was struck by the amount of social work woven into customer communication on a daily basis.

“People readily shared their deepest experiences in this relaxed environment. I sometimes think back to my days at the winery, longing to recapture that feeling of spontaneous personal exchange in the warm sun.”

The entire world community shares that sentiment as they struggle to normalize their lives and renew personal bonds.


                                                                                                   Written by Gwendolyn Goguelet