‘We always felt like she had our backs’: Emmons director Sara Semal leaves Occidental

The Emmons Wellness Center building at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 16, 2021. Lucy Krause/The Occidental

From making strides to combat COVID-19 on campus to always having her colleagues’ backs, Sara Semal had a huge impact on the Occidental community, according to Evelyn Chan, a nurse practitioner at Emmons Wellness Center. Before her departure Aug. 20, Sara Semal was the senior director of student wellness and special advisor to the president on health and safety at Occidental. Semal oversaw the college’s initial COVID-19 safety efforts, as well as Emmons Wellness Center and Project SAFE.

Semal was also a member of the COVID Operations Group (COG), which oversees Occidental’s response to COVID-19 by creating policies and procedures throughout the ongoing pandemic, according to Marty Sharkey, the vice president for communications and institutional initiatives and co-chair of COG.

Semal said she took the lead on getting most of Occidental’s essential workforce vaccinated between February and March 2020 through a contact of hers at city council. Semal played an integral role in making testing and vaccines accessible to the Occidental community, according to Chan.

“[She took] on a role that was maybe not even in her job description,” Chan said.

Semal said her efforts created the foundation for early vaccination protocol at Occidental. Semal researched available testing profusely and created partnerships with various labs and CalVax, the COVID-19 vaccination program in California, to give vaccines on campus, Chan said. Occidental now has a 98 percent vaccination rate.

“In a health emergency, there is rarely time to overthink such things, and there is no room for ego, so it just felt like doing my part,” Semal said. “Everyone played an important role in keeping the community safe. I was happy that mine could be to understand, interpret and adapt to the rapidly-changing COVID news and environment.”

Chan said Semal’s impact was so great not only because of her admirable efforts to combat COVID-19 but because of her character as well.

“[Semal] is an amazing person through and through,” Chan said. “We always felt like she had our backs, regardless of what was going on.”

Sharkey said Semal was highly devoted to the needs of others.

“I found Sara to be extremely dedicated to the needs of our students and the entire campus community throughout the time we worked together on managing COVID issues,” Sharkey said via email.

Semal said she was not planning to leave Occidental, but when Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) recruited her to be their chief wellness officer, she was excited about the new opportunity.

“I love Oxy and every amazing person I worked with there, and I miss it incredibly,” Semal said. “The opportunity at CHLA to build their employee wellness program was brought to me, and in a time when hospitals are truly overwhelmed and clinician burnout is at an all-time high, it felt like a place where I could do a lot of good.”

Chan said she is happy for Semal to embark on a new and exciting journey, but her presence on campus will be greatly missed.

“We’re very happy that she has a new opportunity but we definitely miss her a lot,” Chan said. “This past year she touched so many things and had such an impact on so many people, not just at Emmons but the whole Oxy campus, and we’re super grateful for all that she’s done for the whole community.”

Semal said she is confident that her colleagues will continue to do fantastic work.

“I truly believe that the medical and mental wellness of the Oxy community is in the hands of a lot of intelligent, dedicated and compassionate people,” Semal said. “I left Oxy in amazing hands.”