Student Health Ambassadors Work to Stop the Spread of COVID-19

Four GW students are assisting their on-campus peers who test positive for the virus by picking up groceries and other essential items for them.

Alejandra Paredes wearing a mask and holding a stack of mail
Alejandra Paredes, one of the Student Health Ambassadors, delivers mail to a COVID-19-impacted student to help curb the spread of the virus. (William Atkins/GW Today)
March 08, 2021

By Briahnna Brown

Christian Garcia was looking for a way to connect to the George Washington University community when he was studying virtually in fall 2020.

For Mr. Garcia, a first-year student majoring in international affairs in the Elliott School of International Affairs, the Capital Peers program hosted by the Colonial Health Center gave him that opportunity to serve and connect with the GW community while also promoting health-related initiatives amid the global pandemic.

Now on campus for the spring semester, Mr. Garcia joined the new Student Health Ambassador (SHA) program, which stems from the Capital Peers program, to more directly assist GW students who may come in contact with or test positive for COVID-19. As an SHA, Mr. Garcia picks up groceries, essential supplies such as medications and other packages so that the student with the virus can be isolated and not put others at risk for contracting the virus.

An individual needs to isolate after testing positive for COVID. An individual needs to quarantine if they feel they may have been exposed to the virus after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive or after traveling.

“It's always a journey to get to different locations and manage all the packages--that's always exciting for me,” Mr. Garcia said. “Now that we're doing an essential service for someone who doesn't have the opportunity that we do to go out, that puts things in perspective for me.”

The SHAs serve as student representatives who directly support the students impacted by COVID-19, said Saray Smalls, senior health promotion and education program associate in the office of Student Life. The program was designed and created to help support the on-campus cohort in the spring, she said, and to prepare for the potential of more COVID-19 cases simply because there were going to be more students on campus.

“The Student Health Ambassadors allow us to provide a robust level of care and connection for our students,” said Colette Coleman, senior associate dean of students. “Peer-to-peer relationships take the stigma out of receiving assistance, it is just students helping students.  I am proud of the work the Student Support and Care team have done since the fall semester putting the GW Values into action. Their work has shown students that we care.”

Dan Wright, assistant director for campus living in residential education, said that the Student Support and Care Team, which is run by the Office of Student Life, relies heavily upon the SHA program for a lot of the logistical support that goes into ensuring that a student who comes into contact with the virus can safely recover.

“The Student Health Ambassador position is the ones of the reasons why we were able to successfully bring back another 1,000 students to have a 1,500-person residential population this spring,” Mr. Wright said. “I believe they’ve been a critical part of our overall COVID response and an important student support as we care for residents on campus during the spring semester.”

When an on-campus student learns that they tested positive for COVID-19, a DSA student support and care case manager will outline a number of different support options available to them. Because most students were not planning to isolate for about two weeks before learning that they tested positive, many will need essential supplies such as groceries or packages delivered to them. Once the student indicates what they will need, the case manager assigns the tasks to the different SHAs to meet that need without sharing the COVID-19-positive student’s information aside from their room number for the delivery.

The student employees in the SHA program were trained in January and started assisting the CCST in February. Sofia Bletnitsky, a sophomore studying public health and economics in the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said that because of her training she has yet to come across a situation where she did not know what to do. With the support from the team, she said, she can always get quick answers to any questions that may come up during her work as a SHA.

In addition to supply runs for COVID-19-impacted students, the SHAs also help plan social media outreach as well as develop helpful materials for those who are impacted by the virus.

Alejandra Paredes, a senior majoring in biological anthropology and biology in CCAS and an international student from Lima, Peru, said that she is seeking more ways to craft health promotion content for Spanish-speakers so that she can reach even more people. The SHAs also walk through Gelman Library to ensure that visitors are following safety guidelines such as properly wearing a mask to cover their nose and mouth and making sure students stay distanced in the building.

When Katie Vinson, a first-year student majoring in public health, was exposed to a positive case of COVID-19, she immediately moved into temporary housing to quarantine for just over a week. She was not allowed to pick up the medical essentials she needed, and Mr. Garcia made the deliveries to her temporary housing in The Dakota. Being on the other side of the process gave her a new appreciation for her work as a SHA and supporting students in need, she said.

“I think it's really important for people to understand that our roles are student support, so we're not looking for people to yell at,” Ms. Vinson said. “We're like friends, and I'm going to bring you your groceries, and I'm going to ask you to put your mask over your nose.”

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