KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Staying healthy and staying on campus: two goals that a year ago might have seemed simple but are now complicated exponentially by the pandemic. A group of Western Michigan University students is leading the charge to keep their peers safe and, consequently, the college experience intact.
"We are the people coming back to campus on a regular basis. Therefore, we are all responsible for the health and safety of campus," says Melanie Mitchell, a chemistry graduate student who helped create the COVID-19 Student Coalition and serves as coordinator.
"Our main goal is to keep the student population educated about proper guidelines and spreading the right information, because there's a lot of information out there that's kind of biased. We just want students to have a centralized resource they can use," adds Grace Filpi, a biomedical sciences student and chair of the coalition's education committee.
The COVID-19 Student Coalition finds power in using positive peer influence to encourage safe behaviors among peers and connect students to the myriad resources related to health, safety and education at WMU.
"I know other campuses in Michigan and across the country have similar programs where they want students involved (in COVID-19 mitigation strategies), but ours is student led, which is really unique," says Alison Yelsma, a public health student and chair of the coalition.
"It supports our idea that peer-to-peer education and peer-to-peer encouragement of the guidelines is most probable to be successful," adds Mitchell. "I think the faculty supporting us shows that we're on the right track."
Members of the COVID-19 Student Coalition visited an open mic event on campus in September and passed out face masks donated by a local business. The group is hoping to recruit more student members as well as partner with more Registered Student Organizations across campus. It's also begun a social media campaign to share important information about University guidelines and other helpful resources related to responsible behaviors.
"The COVID-19 Student Coalition puts the power of making change and 'owning' the issue within the hands of the students," says Dr. Robert Bensley, professor of public health and one of the coalition's advisors. "It empowers them to be part of the change and solution rather than just consumers of the message."
AMPLIFYING STUDENT VOICES
The coalition is a new iteration of work that began in March, when University leadership saw the value in enlisting Bensley's public health students to help get important messages out to their peers about staying healthy, staying productive and having grace.
"It's a powerful experiential learning moment," says Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jennifer Bott. "This is what they've chosen to do as their career, and so what better way to give them skills and portfolio pieces that will help them get a job and help keep our campus and our students safe at the same time? This is what they're training for. This is exactly what they're learning how to do. And we would lose something as a campus if we didn't leverage their expertise and give them the opportunity to help us as part of that learning journey."
Several public health students involved with the coalition, including Yelsma, have also completed training to become contact tracers and are helping Sindecuse Health Center to quickly identify those in the WMU community who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19 and reduce the risk of spread among the campus community.
"I am so proud of Melanie and our public health students," Bensley says. "As much of a nightmare COVID-19 is, it has been an ideal real-life laboratory for public health students. They're engaged in implementing public health practice, which they will carry forward with them as they enter the workforce."
It's also given students like Filpi a chance to channel their drive to make a difference.
"I really wanted to figure out a way I could positively help campus and help make a change," she says. "This is so perfect for me because I'm educating other students and helping reduce our cases on campus and stay safer, and I feel like it's the one thing that I'm doing that I'm actually helping make a positive impact."
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