KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Remember to “keep the social in social distancing,” “be a source of light and love for someone who may be alone during this time” and “focus on what you can control,” urge social media posts from Western Michigan University’s Eta Sigma Gamma, a public health chapter.
While transitioning to distance learning and facing uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some public health undergraduates are also embracing the experience as an educational opportunity for themselves and others. With their Society for Public Health Education and national Eta Sigma Gamma health education honorary conferences canceled, they instead launched a social media campaign.
“As a senior in the public health program, there could not have been a better opportunity to close out my time at WMU,” says ESG Co-Chair Kimi Rook, who will be concurrently pursuing a Master of Public Health in global epidemiology and disease control and a Master of Arts in international science and technology policies at George Washington University. “I am honored to be leading all student-focused public health efforts during such a crucial time.”
Designed for college students, the messaging focuses on practical and positive information for mental and physical wellbeing. Working in partnership with the University’s COVID-19 Task Force, and with Dr. Robert Bensley, WMU’s public health program coordinator, as their advisor, eight honors society members have crafted daily posts for social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“As bad as COVID-19 is, it is the ultimate experiential activity” for public health students seeking to use skills they’re learned in their courses," says Bensley.
Primary campaign goals include sharing factual knowledge of COVID-19 and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations; helping students remain healthy, productive and social; and encouraging grace in this time of crisis. The students hope their efforts will help to mitigate negative effects the pandemic is having on the student body so individuals can still succeed.
Look for ESG messages using the hashtags #Bewellwmu, #Stayactivewmu and #Staypositivewmu.
Dr. Jennifer Bott, provost and vice president of academic affairs and co-chair of the COVID-19 Task Force, says she is thrilled with the students’ voluntary work.
“The students’ drive in developing this initiative and the passion by which they approach service to their fellow students is incredible,” Bott says. “Their efforts in shaping the many positive and inclusive messages and effectively leveraging delivery channels are having a positive impact every day.”
Campaign concepts were based on inclusivity and compassion amid the unknown, says ESG member Jessica Graber, who hopes to become a public health educator unafraid of addressing difficult and stigmatized subjects pertaining to issues such as mental and sexual health.
“It is extremely important to address every aspect of our current situation, especially grace and empathy,” Graber says. “This is a time where almost everyone is learning from one another through trial and error. There aren’t many definite answers on how to overcome this issue. Many people have different ways to cope with stress and fear, but we want to make sure that people are provided with helpful tools on how to manage these feelings and understand that we are all in this together.”
Graber says the group is using Zoom to conduct video meetings and organizing multiple group chats online to keep the campaign progressing, assess response and provide their own input.
The students also are bringing their prior real-world experiences to this social media campaign, says Rebekah Bensley, ESG co-chair and COVID-19 health communication plan architect. Some of their academic activities have included securing a $14,000 contract to assess community nutrition feeding program needs, delivering numerous health initiatives to WMU, attending professional association conferences and conducting research. Some also participated in a public health study abroad program in South Africa, and presented their research at state and national conferences.
“The key students on this project completed a health communication planning course last fall that I taught, and went through the theories models and processes for developing health communication strategies. This current event is the perfect opportunity for them to put skills into practice during a real public health pandemic crisis,” and serves as a capstone to their learning, Bensley, the professor, says.
Bensley praised campaign organizers. “They are at a point where they are ready, confident and willing to be a part of the solution.”
“This has been an incredibly informative experience that has increased my own self-efficacy concerning practicing public health in the real world,” says Rebekah Bensley, who intends to earn a Master of Public Health and a Juris Doctorate to practice legal epidemiology.
“As this experience teaches us, public health crises require professionals and experts to be ready at a moment’s notice, to jump in and solve problems,” says Bott. “This takes preparation, practice and confidence. I am so proud of our students for demonstrating these skills and for the faculty members who have mentored and taught them to shine at this very crucial moment.”
Besides Bensley, Rook and Graber, other campaign participants include ESG members Siarah Cole, Camryn Giem, Rohini Perera, Holly Young, Kylie Wiseman and Alison Yelsma.
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