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Public Health Ambassadors Helping Penn State Students Follow COVID-19 Guidelines

by on October 09, 2020 4:00 AM

If you take a stroll across the University Park campus these days, you’ll likely run into Penn State students sporting light-blue t-shirts and large duffel bags.

No, these aren’t freshmen running late to their only in-person class. They are student health ambassadors trained and employed by the university to make sure students are following health and safety guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program was created back in August by Penn State’s Office of Student Affairs to ease campus’ reopening this fall.

Currently, there are 165 students ambassadors employed by the university, according to Director of Health Promotion and Wellness Linda LaSalle. Each ambassador works a minimum of 10 hours per week and has received individualized training to prepare for various interactions with peers and community members.

During a typical shift, ambassadors are assigned to specific geographical areas or “zones” on campus. They are then responsible for monitoring that zone and making sure everyone is practicing proper coronavirus safety protocols. Ambassadors work between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. on weekends and are paid more than $9 an hour.

“The goals of the program are to provide the campus and local community with visible public health educators and representatives to assist and answer questions related to COVID-19,” LaSalle said.

She said she hopes these educational peer-to-peer engagements influence healthy behaviors, including physical distancing, wearing face coverings, practicing hand and cough hygiene, and using hand sanitizer.

One way ambassadors achieve these goals is by distributing packets to non-complying students that include essential items such as masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves.

Julia Mewha, a junior majoring in biobehavioral health, became an ambassador to gain experience working in a medicine-related field before heading to grad school. So far, she said the program has been effective, but mainly because most students she sees are already complying with Penn State’s guidelines.

“Honestly, people do wear their masks regularly,” Mewha said. “I have been very surprised I don’t have to go up to people. Usually, if someone isn’t wearing [a] mask right, they will see me and put it on correctly.”

Mewha’s feedback is echoed in the responses of other student ambassadors.

“The Health Promotion and Wellness program collects end-of-shift surveys, and many ambassadors have reported that individuals voluntarily adjust their masks to be compliant with university policy,” LaSalle said.

The surveys also indicate that most students on campus are voluntarily following Penn State’s guidelines.

“Based on data collected from the first two weeks of the semester, the ambassadors report that 95% of their interactions are positive, and most individuals that they see are complying,” LaSalle added.

In the future, Student Affairs plans to extend this program and increase health and safety awareness in other areas off campus.

“The university is also collaborating with State College Borough to have a health ambassador presence downtown,” LaSalle said.

Although there’s always room for improvement, Mewha believes Penn State’s ambitious program is getting the job done.

“I really do think they made this program the best it can be,” Mewha said. “This is a very uncertain time and I think the way they implemented this is great.”

Rory Pelella is a Penn State student and Onward State contributor.
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