Dogwood Health Trust Funds Student Health Ambassador Program at Six WNC Colleges and Universities to Continue Campus Initiatives and Community Engagement in 2021-22
Sept. 28, 2021
The Student Health Ambassadors are back on campuses throughout Western North Carolina this fall, in an initiative led by UNC Asheville, with support from Dogwood Health Trust. A $486,524 grant from Dogwood Health Trust will fund Student Health Ambassador positions at six colleges and universities in Western North Carolina, including Brevard College, Mars Hill University, Montreat College, Warren Wilson College, and Western Carolina University, in addition to the flagship program at UNC Asheville. Up to 50 students will be employed in the program for the 2021-22 year, with project management in partnership with the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC).
The institutions of higher education first envisioned the Student Health Ambassadors (SHA) program with the return to campus of fall 2020, supported by funding from the NC Policy Collaboratory and MAHEC. In the collaborative pilot program year, the SHAs centered on peer-led communication and support to address the urgent need to reduce infections and encourage well-being during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are thrilled to support the continuation of this work, because we know that peer-to-peer education is one of the best ways to influence behavior change,” said Dr. Susan Mims, interim CEO of Dogwood Health Trust. “It was exciting to be on the ground during the development of this project during the early stages of COVID, and to see how students last year really embraced the role and made a significant impact on the health and safety on their campuses.”
During the first year, all six WNC university campuses in the collaborative effort were able to remain residential and continue onsite classes for the 2020-21 academic year. Notable successes included zero positive cases of COVID-19 at Warren Wilson College within its residential community during the fall semester, and UNC Asheville had the lowest rate of prevalence of COVID-19 in the UNC System at the end of the fall semester.
“For the last year, the UNC Asheville Student Health Ambassadors have led our academic community through the difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their hard work, together with public health best practices in collaboration with MAHEC, enabled UNCA to have the lowest prevalence of COVID over the last three semesters. Given UNC Asheville’s ongoing partnership with the Dogwood Health Trust, we’re honored to continue the important work of our Student Health Ambassadors and to extend the reach of this vital health promotion program to the campuses and surrounding communities of the six regional institutions of higher education in Western North Carolina,” said UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy J. Cable.
The work also earned national attention – with a paper published in the Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, contributions to a toolkit in development by the American College Health Association, and technical assistance to local and national institutions of higher education interested in creating their own programs.
“Given the success of this program and building on the momentum from last year’s accomplishments, this expansion will support the achievement of each individual’s full health potential, build resilience, and support well-being among students, employees, and their communities in WNC,” said Amy Lanou, professor of health and wellness and executive director of the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness at UNC Asheville. “We’ll be intentionally working and encouraging the SHAs to consider careers in health, health care and health support workforce.”
The student teams work locally on their campus and collaboratively, sharing best practices, focusing on positive, proactive and prevention-focused techniques, building leadership skills, and supporting peer-led campus culture change. Together, they work across four counties: Jackson, Madison, Transylvania, and Buncombe counties — and support 22,000 students and 4,000 employees.
“The positive impact on the campus community can be seen in several ways,” said SHA Project Director Jordan Perry, UNC Asheville’s healthy campus liaison, adjunct faculty, and chair of staff council. “Knowledge and skills increase within the SHAs themselves, including leadership, communication, health equity skills, and a clear commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Campus community members report feeling that their institution cares about their health and wellness.”
In addition to establishing and extending the network of SHAs, the program aims to expand workforce development in health promotion and public health. In 2021-22, the program plans to host a summit for future leaders in public health, inviting high school students to explore opportunities and careers across health care fields.
“Perhaps the best way to inspire and recruit leaders for our future health care workforce is to identify individuals from WNC who have a passion for promoting the health of their community, like these collegiate and high school students,” explains Bryan Hodge, M.D., chair of the Department of Community and Public Health at UNC Health Sciences at MAHEC. “Building on this experiential opportunity creates immediate, meaningful change in our communities and is an investment in the future of these students and our region.”
The program also benefits communities surrounding the campuses, and in 2021-22, it will connect student-led health equity promotion efforts to rural communities in Western North Carolina. The students infuse health promotion and health equity into programming, service learning, and internship opportunities. They can be booked to speak at community forums, neighborhood associations, YMCA, YWCA, Rotary, PTAs, etc.
“Health equity, in the form of access and treatment, is essential to the health and quality of life of our citizens across the WNC community. While on campus, we will continue with efforts to spread vetted, up-to-date COVID-related information to our campus community, we are also reaching out into our respective communities. If you draw a 50 mile radius around each of our six partner campuses, together our campuses serve and directly engage with every community west of Black Mountain,” said Lane Perry, executive director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning in the Office of Undergraduate Studies at Western Carolina University.
To see their published work, see: Lanou, A., Perry, J., Perry, L., Garland, B., Hunt, K., & Leighton, K. (2021). Practice report: Student health ambassadors at residential campuses contribute to safer campus living and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 23(8). [Link]
Next Steps for UNC Asheville’s Student Health Ambassadors in Spring 2021
Jan. 29, 2021
In fall 2020, UNC Asheville’s Student Health Ambassadors amassed 1,791 in-person and virtual support hours, planned and implemented 32 events, and encouraged students to walk more than 2,051 miles in a step challenge. That’s more than 4 million steps, and it’s just one example of their multi-faceted work across campus and in the region, and the many steps they implemented to curtail the spread of COVID.
Throughout the semester, 45 Student Health Ambassadors contributed to the campus experience, encouraged community expectations during COVID, and found ways to connect with fellow students, from text messages during quarantine and pen pal programs with regional universities to steps they could take toward health and wellness and virtual visits around the world.
“This has truly been an experiment in the power of student leadership and seeing what we could do in peer education,” said Jordan Perry, UNC Asheville healthy campus liaison.
Funded in fall 2020 through an NC Policy Collaboratory Grant, which also funded Student Health Ambassador positions at Western Carolina University, the work was extended to Brevard College, Mars Hill University, Montreat College and Warren Wilson College through a partnership with MAHEC and collectively reached 22,000 college students through 93 positions. Now their work is being shared with Temple University, presented at national conferences and soon to be published in a practice paper.
It’s also continuing thanks to a spring 2021 grant from MAHEC that funds 20 Student Health Ambassadors at UNC Asheville, continued evaluation efforts, and SHAs at the other five campuses. In addition MAHEC is funding a coordinator for the Social Bridging project a collaborative effort between UNC Asheville and UNC Health Sciences at MAHEC which trains and supports wellness volunteers to reach out by phone to socially isolated older adults in WNC to increase social connectedness.
“The situation of COVID in our area right now is drastically different this semester than last semester. We are going to have to figure out new ways to encourage students…. We want to create ways to limit COVID fatigue among students, faculty and staff,” said sophomore Casey Kellogg, who’s first step is working with Campus Recreation to implement another step challenge.
“From the beginning when we first got hired, it was solely focused on COVID, but as we learned more about COVID and our campus and what we needed, we learned that so much more goes into it…. There are so many things that tie into this work. Our themes each week helped students fill in those holes to prevent COVID,” said senior Skyler Chillson.
Chillson is also one of several Student Health Ambassadors who have also volunteered with vaccine distribution in Madison and Henderson Counties through MAHEC.
“I was able to volunteer at the Madison County Health Department for vaccine distribution,” said Chillson. “It was so empowering and uplifting, and it made me hopeful.”
That’s the hope coming into the spring semester as well, informed by the results from the fall and built upon community expectations and the three W’s – wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart, and washing hands frequently.
“Student Health Ambassadors reported having a strong impact on other, non-COVID related health initiatives and increased attention to personal daily health and wellness routines,” said Meredith Silver, research assistant at the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness, which lead evaluation of the initiative in collaboration with NCCHW Director of Partnership and Evaluation Emma Olson and faculty members Lyndi Hewitt and Cathy Whitlock.
Silver also cites that SHAs learned team-building skills and collaboration, the importance of using credible sources and that making a connection is the first step in creating change. Surveys show that they had an impact supporting students on campus and decreasing rates of COVID-19 on campus, with 95.9% of survey respondents indicating that they wore their masks while on campus.
At the end of the fall semester, UNC Asheville had the lowest prevalence of cases in the UNC System.
UNC Asheville’s Student Health Ambassadors continue this work in spring 2021 and will be joined by Student Course Ambassadors. These 20 or so positions receive funding from the Mellon Foundation Presidential Grant, providing up to 100 hours of support each, to assist in technical needs for courses during the spring 2021 semester. Course Ambassadors can provide technical assistance for in-person classes where instructors are teaching dual-modality/hyflex ways.
“Our SHA work is one piece of the puzzle. We had a lot of things going for us and so many faculty, staff, and students worked to make the fall semester a success,” Perry said. “SHAs are experts in their own experience… My hope for them is that they leave this role knowing they can do this kind of work and to trust their instincts and experience. If you set reasonable goals and follow through on them, you can do really incredible things.”
Learn more by following the UNC Asheville Student Health Ambassador Instagram @unca_sha.
Spring 2021 Student Health Ambassador Awards at UNC Asheville
As the spring 2021 came to a close, the Student Health Ambassadors recognized five unique awards – given at each campus. The UNC Asheville recipients include:
- Kate Adams, Leadership Award: This SHA has been an awesome leader (either formally or informally) during the last year
- Alex Pritchard, Creative Genius Award: This SHA was consistently creative and helped us show off our work over the last year
- Kat Stulpin, Helping Hands Award: This SHA was willing to help whenever and wherever it was needed
- Lola Stephens, Spirit Award: This SHA embodied everything we wanted our program to be
- Baye Samodal, Team Player Award: This SHA worked across teams and supported us all in being successful
UNC Asheville’s SHA Program also earned Student Organization of the Year at the annual LEAP Awards, and advisor Jordan Perry, healthy campus liaison, was awarded Student Employee Supervisor of the Year.
- March 8, 2021 COVID Conversation and Vaccine Q&A (watch the recording)
In the News
- Student Health Ambassadors Back on College Campuses – Transylvania Times, Oct. 2021
- Program helps colleges like UNCA navigate health issues like COVID-19 – WLOS, Oct. 2021
- Sidebar: Regional Relationships: Creative Collaborations for Prevention and Mitigation Among Western North Carolina Learning Institutions, by Amy Lanou and Bryan Lodge – North Carolina Medical Journal, July 2021
- How UNC Asheville continues to thrive during COVID – AVLToday, Dec. 2020
- Not All Heroes Wear Capes—Some Simply Wear Masks and Stay Six Feet Apart – NC Policy Collaboratory, Oct. 2020
- Coronavirus Updates – AVLToday, Sept. 2020
- UNC Asheville leads critical COVID-19 efforts at state, national levels – Asheville Citizen-Times, Aug. 2020
- Meet the Student Health Ambassadors – UNC Asheville, Aug. 2020
- Student Health Ambassadors in Western North Carolina Awarded 2nd Place in COVID Innovation Programing from the National Consortium for Building Healthy Academic Communities – UNC Asheville, March 2021
- Catamounts Care Ambassadors part of team recognized as force for beating the pandemic – Western Carolina University, March 2021
- WNC Colleges and Universities Partner with Academic Health Center to Combat COVID – North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (NC AHEC)
- Western North Carolina college students combat COVID – North Carolina Health News, Jan. 2021
- Warren Wilson ends semester with no on-campus cases of COVID-19 – Warren Wilson College
- Student-led program at WCU helps to stop spread of COVID-19 – WLOS, Sept. 2020
Ask a Student Health Ambassador Videos
The SHAs share tips on talking to friends and colleagues about health and safety on campus during COVID-19.