SIDNEY — Ana Hewett never imagined her job at Waterville’s JFK Plaza Hannaford supermarket would be considered a frontline position. Haley Hersey didn’t think her job at Hannaford’s Elm Plaza store in Waterville would ever be much of a big deal, either.

Ana Hewett of Sidney is a nursing major at the University of Southern Maine. She was recently awarded a scholarship in recognition of her job as a frontline worker at Hannaford during the pandemic. Submitted photo

But, as is always possible in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, things and perceptions change. Hewett, of Sidney, and Hersey, of Fairfield, were among 50 University of Southern Maine students recognized for continuing their education while working on the pandemic’s frontlines — in a food store.

“Something that’s made me realize it’s a big deal during the pandemic was people coming up and thanking me,” Hewett, a cashier, service clerk and bakery hand, said. “I think people respect it more to a degree, especially during this time.”

Hersey, a cashier and trainer, remembers the Friday afternoon in March when Lawrence High School students were first sent home to learn remotely. They never went back, but she still went to work. At the store cleaning protocols increased drastically, and at first, going to work had an “eerie” feel, Hersey said.

“I was still having to go into Hannaford, pretending things weren’t as scary as they were going to be,” Hersey said. “I think a lot of people realize how essential grocery store workers are. We’re getting thanked a lot more.”

The 50 students honored by USM received $1,000 scholarships. Those recognized with the award work in a variety of essential jobs, including health care professionals, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, retail and grocery employees, child care providers, delivery services workers, and transportation providers. The scholarships are funded by the USM Office of the President and by private donations.

“During this period of unprecedented challenges, we have come to understand just how essential these people are to keeping us going — as individuals and as a society,” USM President Glenn Cummings said in a news release. “It’s only fitting that we recognize the importance of the work they are doing and the risks they are taking by helping to make their college education more affordable.”

The 20-year-old Hewett, a 2019 Messalonskee High School graduate, is working on her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing at USM. Her father, Eric Hewett, is a nurse at Northern Light Inland Hospital in Waterville.

Haley Hersey of Fairfield is a media studies major at the University of Southern Maine. She was recently awarded a scholarship in recognition of her job as a frontline worker at Hannaford in the time of the pandemic. Submitted photo

“I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field, because they do so much for people,” Ana Hewett said. “It’s kind of shifted this whole pandemic because of everything they’ve gone through and how much of a difference for the community, and even nationally. And I’d love to be a part of the difference some day.”

Hersey, 18, graduated from Lawrence High School this past May. She is a majoring in media studies and currently serves as a staff writer for USM’s student newspaper, The Free Press. Her goal is to work in journalism advocating for underrepresented groups. She plans to graduate in three years.

“I originally started as a bio major, because I wanted to help people, but I also enjoyed writing, so I was like, ‘how can I combine these interests?'” Hersey said.

Half of Hersey’s classes over the first semester started out in-person, but by the end they were all remote. She expects the same thing to happen in the upcoming semester. The University of Maine System announced last Tuesday its plans to expand COVID-19 testing during the spring semester when students return to campuses Jan. 25.

Hersey, who lives on USM’s Gorham Campus, said the scholarship “helps a lot.”

“It’s been a really big deal for me,” Hewett said. “I got it and was extremely thankful for it. It’s going to take a lot off my payment, and I’m very appreciative of what the university has done in recognition of essential workers and first responders during all of this.”

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