For three years, the Student Health Ambassador (SHA) program at UNC Asheville has provided education and support to enhance the mental health and well-being of UNC Asheville students, faculty, and staff, as well as its surrounding community.
Even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, student health ambassadors on campus went to work to make sure that their classmates in quarantine isolation received the connection and nourishment they needed.
“Their role was swabbing noses or delivering meals, writing really beautiful notes … or even creating workout guides to students who were in Q/I for two weeks,” recalls Student Health Ambassador Program Manager Kol Gold-Leighton.
This valuable program, run by the NC Center for Health and Wellness (NCCHW) in partnership with Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), is receiving a boost of support itself. Dogwood Health Trust has awarded the program $173,845 in grant funds — its second year of giving — to help deepen the ability of SHAs to reach students where they most need support.
“This continued commitment by Dogwood Health Trust to the health and well-being of our campus communities is much needed and deeply appreciated,” says Amy Joy Lanou, professor and executive director, NCCHW. “The SHAs have shifted from building a peer-informed culture of health to reduce COVID infections on their campuses, to addressing the after effects of lockdowns, disruptions in learning, and isolation that are impacting the mental and emotional health of all of us, and especially, their peers.”
The grant will fund a new campus community health needs assessment survey, created in collaboration with Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) SHA program leaders. This grant will benefit all six campuses participating in the Student Health Ambassador program — also known as the WNC Collaborative Network for Campus-Community Peer Support and Health Education project — including Brevard College, Mars Hill University, Montreat College, Warren Wilson College, and Western Carolina University.
SHAs will also continue to support the health and well-being of students, build individual student and campus community resilience, and expand workforce pathways in health promotion and public health. The program has, so-far, been guided largely by the majors and interests of the student ambassadors themselves. The grant will help inform the program with data on the student body’s needs. Through the surveys, students will share their top priorities and the SHA program can tailor its efforts to address those needs and fill those gaps first.
SHA work — which is student-informed peer-education with support from Gold-Leighton and campus health promotion leaders and ambassadors — has already made positive changes across campuses.
In spring 2022, a UNC Asheville student health ambassador approached Gold-Leighton to say, “‘I would really like there to be a larger emphasis on disability, ableism awareness in our trainings, in our work that we do.’”
The idea went quickly from theory to practice, and their conversation resulted in a popular disability and student ableism training. The student contacted an admired disability rights and inclusion activist whom she follows on TikTok, Imani Barbarin. SHA crowdsourced the funds to have Barbarin present at the training, and it was attended virtually by hundreds of people across the six-campus four county Student Health Ambassador regional network.
This event was personal for the organizing student health ambassador, who is a queer woman of color with a disability. The student wanted to ensure their intersectional voice would be at the center of the training. And so did the SHA program.
“We made that happen. We took that seriously. That’s the buy-in that makes this program legitimate in the eyes of every campus I’ve had the fortune to work with,” Gold-Leighton says. “The comments were just so glowing, and it really connected the dots for students … that this is something that deserves equal representation and attention in the spotlight.”
The Student Health Ambassador program will continue to nurture and expand that same student-centered energy and focus thanks to support from the new Dogwood Health Trust grant.