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Critical work to defend Sac State community's health leads to President's Medal for Joy Stewart-James

The work of Joy Stewart-James, left, with President Robert S. Nelsen, across a vast swath of important health initiatives and programs led to her being honored with a 2021 President's Medal for Distinguished Service. (Sacramento State Student Affairs/Rachael Howery)

 As the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide in 2020, Joy Stewart-James sprang into action to protect the Sacramento State community.

“I cannot imagine what this past year would have been like if we didn’t have Joy leading our University’s COVID response,” said Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen.

“She kept our campus community safe during the pandemic and has played an integral role in improving the health and well-being of the Hornet Family.”

For her tireless work over the past 18 months, Nelsen awarded Stewart-James, the associate vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS), the prestigious President's Medal for Distinguished Service. The engraved medallion is given to individuals who provide outstanding service to Sacramento State or to the public and common good.

Joy stewart-James
Joy Stewart-James was lauded by President Robert S. Nelsen for her "incredible work."  (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

The University was to recognize Stewart-James during Sac State football’s home opener Saturday, Sept. 11.

“Sacramento State is a community of more than 35,000 – a city, really – and we took on the responsibility that we are the public health agency for this university, and how do we go about keeping all of us safe?” Stewart-James said.

“We’ve had challenges all along the way, and you just learn to take a breath. What do we know today and what is in the best interest of keeping our community healthy and safe?  I just tried to provide a measured response and steady the ship a little.”

Among the COVID responses she instituted was strengthening an existing partnership with Sacramento County Public Health to position Sacramento State as a vaccination site when COVID-19 vaccines became available.

In mid-January 2021, Stewart-James learned the county would provide Sac State with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which must be stored at temperatures between -80 and – minus 60 degrees Celsius. Working with Lisa Hammersley, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, she arranged use of the research-faculty freezers in the new Ernest E. Tschannen Science Complex.

Stewart-James and Janet Dumonchelle, pharmacist-in-charge at the Student Health and Counseling Services Pharmacy, partnered with School of Nursing faculty and students to open a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in the University Union on Jan. 28, 2021.

Within five months, Nursing students and SHCS clinical staff administered more than 21,000 vaccine doses to University faculty, staff, students, and community members.

Nursing faculty and students had been on the front lines of Sac State’s flu-shot clinics for several years, making it an easy transition to the COVID vaccination clinic.

As an added bonus, Stewart-James said, Nursing students who were unable to be placed for clinicals during the pandemic could pick up their required hours by working at the clinic.

Stewart-James also led the campus’ COVID-19 testing, exposure reporting, and contact tracing efforts. The Health Services team set up an early-reporting system for faculty, staff, and students who exhibited symptoms or were exposed to COVID-19, and responded within 24 hours. Additionally, she worked with the campus Information Resources and Technology and Environmental Health and Safety offices to create a daily screening app that allowed for real-time reporting to Student Health.   

“Joy and her team have worked tirelessly to respond to the pandemic,” Nelsen said. “We were in a good position to welcome the Hornet Family back to campus this fall, thanks to Joy’s incredible work. I am grateful for her leadership.”

Stewart-James earned her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin and her master’s degree from the University of Oregon. She worked for more than 20 years at a large hospital health care system in Austin, Texas, where she oversaw ambulatory care clinics and inpatient and outpatient departments.

She was a veteran of crisis response prior to the coronavirus pandemic.In 2009, a year after she arrived at Sac State, the novel H1N1 virus was first detected and quickly spread around the world.

“This was new, and it was especially concerning among the college-age population, and we were not as prepared as we could be,” Stewart-James said. “The campus did not have a strong working relationship with Sacramento County Public Health or with local hospital facilities.  We quickly initiated steps to begin working with the county and were able to offer H1N1 vaccines on campus to students and employees. 

“Over the last 10 years, we put into place a comprehensive communicable-disease outbreak campus plan, the Student Health Pharmacy has taken on mass vaccinations, and we have worked with Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services to become a point of dispensing during a public-health emergency.”

After Sacramento State turned to remote learning in March 2020, Stewart-James led her team’s efforts to serve students through telehealth medical visits and telecounseling sessions. Finding that “tele-services” offered better access for many students, she decided they are “here to stay.”


On the same day that Sacramento State honors the work of Joy Stewart-James and other first responders for keeping the University community safe, we also remember the sacrifice made by heroes 20 years ago on behalf of their fellow citizens who suffered through the 9/11 attacks.

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About Dixie Reid

Dixie Reid has been a writer for Sac State since 2012 after decades as a newspaper reporter. A Texas native with the accent to prove it, Dixie is crazy about “dear friends, big dogs, good books, great food, day trips, baking cookies, California sunshine (and fog), and kind people.”

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