A team of 400 UC San Diego undergraduates has been recruited to reinforce healthy behaviors among students onand off-campus, from wearing masks to maintaining physical distance and participating in weekly COVID testing. Known as Triton Health Ambassadors, these friendly students—who are easily spotted in bright yellow T-shirts—engage their peers by answering questions, offering resources and even awarding $5 Starbucks gift cards to those following guidelines.
In February 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was evolving into a global emergency, a partnership was established with student leaders to develop a response. The initial daily conversations have continued for a full year, now with twice weekly calls.
“Our student leaders and public health faculty provided important guidance that our compliance efforts needed to be supportive and progressive,’ explained Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Alysson Satterlund.
After researching other models around the country, a program at the University of Miami was discovered that reinforced this approach.
“The Student Affairs team reached out to our colleagues there and the Triton Health Ambassador program was launched in fall 2020,’ said Satterlund. “It creates a positive culture of health and removes barriers that may exist, so that we can maximize student safety.’
Student ambassadors are hired and trained by staff in Recreation, who conduct weekly check-ins and hold ongoing trainings around specific topics.
“The program’s success is rooted in a culture of care and the Triton Spirit,’ said Director of Recreation Rich Mylin. “This program is not about shaming those who might not understand the campus goals around safety; rather it is about sharing with them how they can be a part of the solution.’
The program is also led in partnership with the School of Public Health, the Student Health & Well-Being Cluster and Student Affairs Case Management Services.
A friendly reminder
Marie Manipud, a fourth-year undergraduate student studying public health, recalls that many students on campus were initially confused about public health policies when they returned for the fall quarter. As part of the inaugural cohort of Triton Health Ambassadors, Manipud offers students and visitors friendly reminders about wearing a face covering at all times and provides a mask for those who do not have one.
“I’m getting to know my community while getting to be a part of the campus’s COVID response,’ said Manipud. “I enjoy engaging with the UC San Diego community, especially now when interactions are limited. Students look up to us; sometimes students will come up to me and start a conversation if they have questions. One transfer student says hello every time he sees me and gives me updates on his quarter.’
The flexible program allows student employees to sign up for as many shifts as their schedule allows—with shifts open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Each student is equipped with a bright T-shirt, a backpack or fanny pack with supplies, hand sanitizer, flashlights for evening shifts and a warm jacket for colder weather.
Ambassadors have the option to “patrol? one of seven zones on campus in pairs, during which time they approach peers to offer resources such as disposable masks and COVID testing kits, as well as answer questions and offer reminders about campus policies. Team members can also sign up to help operate walk-up testing clinics on campus, where they also assemble self-administered test kits.
“When we patrol on campus, we wear bright yellow shirts; as soon as they see us, it’s a reminder,’ explained Manipud. “If we spot a group of friends who are doing a good job, we give them Starbucks gift cards. We also report incidents, such as if we saw a big group of friends who weren’t distancing.’
At the end of each shift, ambassadors are asked to provide head counts for congested areas of campus and identify resource issues, like hand sanitizer dispensers that need refilling. Their report also indicates interactions they have with non-compliant individuals and groups (though no names are recorded) as well as the number of self-administered testing kits that were distributed.
“It is inspirational how motivated our students are to support the safety of campus community members,’ said Ebonee Williams, director of Virtual Experience and Peer Engagement. “They are friendly greeters with a secret mission to support proven practices that help keep our campus safe.’
A compassionate response
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone. Instead of assuming a blatant disregard for rules, UC San Diego has approached student compliance through a lens of empathy. The first response is always education, starting a conversation about what the university’s safety guidelines are. Next, what are the barriers that are preventing the student from following these protocols? As a last resort, or after multiple incidents of noncompliance, students will be referred to the Student Conduct Office for progressive engagement and discipline.
“The reason our Return to Learn program has been so successful is because our students are committed to the safety of their peers,’ said Dr. Angela Scioscia, interim executive director of Student Health and Well-Being. “UC San Diego students have a great appetite for knowledge and an ability to integrate complex health information, which has led to greater adoption of the public health interventions we have developed.’
For many of the students who choose to serve as Triton Health Ambassadors, it is an opportunity to give back.
“I like that this job allows me to contribute to the fight against the pandemic; it really feels like meaningful and fulfilling work,’ said Kane Gu, a third-year cognitive science major. “I believe that Triton Health Ambassadors are an effective presence on campus, as both a COVID resource and model for student safety.’