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.
For more information about the Student Health Ambassador program, visit https://coronavirus.unca.edu/resources/student-health-ambassadors/. 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]