If you’ve been in State College for the past few months, you’ve likely seen students patrolling the community in dark blue shirts.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Penn State created the Public Health Ambassador Program for undergraduate and graduate students to promote healthy practices at the university and State College as a whole.
The program is run through Penn State’s Health Promotion & Wellness division of Student Affairs.
Katelyn Quick, assistant director of outreach for Health Promotion & Wellness, said the program began in the fall to ensure students followed the university’s “back to state guidelines.”
Quick said its mission is to help provide students with resources and education on safe health measures amid the pandemic, such as “masks, hand sanitizer and educational pamphlets.”
In order to prepare ambassadors for any kind of interactions, Quick said examples of situations are put together for the ambassadors to practice with.
“In our training, we have scripts that we roleplay, where we teach our students what to say to their peers,” Quick said. “It’s important for the ambassadors to take an educational approach — it decreases confrontation and makes sure that guidelines are being followed.”
Quick said the ambassadors are on campus and downtown to “offer support” in specific areas and hotspots like the library, the HUB-Robeson Center, and around bars and restaurants.
“I think in general, students do a nice job on the masking and following social distancing guidelines, but there are some specific places on campus we hear about that get lax on these things, so we might get reports that students in a certain building are not masking up,” Quick said.
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Although most students have been agreeable with the university’s policies, according to Quick, there have been some instances of “pushback” against the ambassadors.
“It's very occasional. Most of the time students are very compliant. There may be some problems in places like the library or the HUB, where students will listen when they see an ambassador, but once they are out of sight the students take their mask off,” Quick said. “But the big confrontations where people have been rude have been downtown.”
Sarah Liu joined the program as one of its 140 ambassadors and is a team leader. She said providing for the community is one of the program’s main goals.
“We try to ensure that all the community members that don’t have a mask or hand sanitizer can have them, without any cost,” Liu (graduate-health administration) said. “There’s always this lack of education in the community. It’s important for us to encourage other students to follow the guidelines.”
Liu said her role as an ambassador is about “encouragement, not authority.”
“Our job isn't to tell people what to do, but to encourage and show the importance of certain measures,” Liu said. “We aren’t trying to demand anyone to do anything.”
Liu said students have generally been good at following public health guidelines, but in crowded places such as the library or the HUB, students can be found disregarding social distancing measures.
“The Penn State community is pretty good at masking. It has certainly gotten a lot better since we first got here in August,” Liu said. “However, I feel that social distancing could be a little more improved, especially in crowded areas.”
While Liu said ambassadors are focused on ensuring that safety measures are being followed, team leaders have to keep their teammates safe when around State College.
“Especially with State Patty’s Day last weekend, people still held their own parties and stuff. A couple of the ambassadors were a little concerned,” Liu said. “We did not want to have to pressure them to work downtown.”
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Josh Cobler, another team leader, joined to “get involved in the safety process.”
“When I saw Penn State create this position and that they were hiring ambassadors, I knew this would be a great opportunity to help students on campus maintain masking and social distancing guidelines,” Cobler (graduate-health administration) said.
Cobler praised the State College community for following masking and social distancing guidelines.
“Thanks to the good job of the community, we are still here at State College, which we did not know if we would be at this point,” Cobler said. “We just want to keep reminding the public to be putting a mask on, wearing it around and following social distancing guidelines.”
While Cobler said most interactions with the community have gone well, every once in a while some refuse to put on a mask.
“For the most part, people have been attentive but there is the occasional person who gets hostile about it. When we train, we are taught to do it in a de-escalation manner,” Cobler said. “If it gets to a point where they get too hostile, we want to keep our ambassadors safe.”
According to Cobler, after nearly a year in the pandemic , some have entered “COVID fatigue,” which means people are getting tired of participating in social distancing measures, mask wearing and isolation.
Cobler said in order to prevent fatigue, the State College community needs to be reminded of their “good habits.”
“We need to remind people there is still a pandemic going on and make sure that everyone… is protected and safe.”