A new initiative has both encouraged adherence to health protocols, contributing to Brown’s low COVID-19 case count, and mobilized more than 70 staff members whose work responsibilities were altered by the pandemic.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Life on the Brown campus has changed considerably since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Rhode Island in full force.
For students and others who live, work or study on campus, understanding how to successfully navigate public health protocols in a way that promotes a healthy and safe community has come with a steep learning curve. And for some staff members whose ability to work remotely is limited, day-to-day demands have been reduced, even as the University continues to avoid layoffs in the face of the pandemic’s financial impact.
This fall, a new Healthy Ambassadors program has addressed both of those challenges concurrently as one element of Brown’s COVID-19 prevention and education initiatives.
The idea was generated by the University COVID-19 personnel working group and developed by the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity in collaboration with BWell Health Promotion. The program trains employees whose daily work responsibilities have been considerably altered since the beginning of the pandemic and redeploys them as Healthy Ambassadors for some shifts each week, with the rest of their time devoted to regular work responsibilities.
In a global pandemic where isolation, anxiety and frustration are all too common, the Healthy Ambassadors have worked to bring some sense of normalcy to campus by making COVID-19 prevention protocols clear-cut, cheerful and community-oriented.
“What’s great is the community members in our Healthy Ambassadors program are in the same community that our students and faculty are — we all want the same thing,” said Andrew Goodman, a Healthy Ambassador and director of football operations in Brown Athletics. “When you have people with similar interests who are aligned in what they want to return to normal, there is a lot more positive momentum.”
Goodman, like the nearly 70 other ambassadors in the program, performs his shifts stationed at high-traffic sites on campus — the College Green, Simmons Quad, Friedman Hall and the Rockefeller Library, among others.
Responsibilities vary from one day to the next, but Goodman spends most of his time guiding students to building entrance and exit pathways designed to minimize congregating, providing masks and hand sanitizer to those who may not have any, and reminding students about social distancing guidelines.
But more than anything, he says, he’s dishing out positive reinforcement and compliments to those he sees following public health guidelines — part of the University’s overall effort to motivate healthy behaviors for the good of the community, rather than enforce compliance when that’s avoidable.
“The students have been really great,” Goodman said. “They’ve been our allies, we’ve been their allies, and they understand what’s at stake.”
Chloe Poston, director of strategic initiatives for the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity and the director of the Healthy Ambassadors program, said that training staff to serve in the role focuses on using bystander intervention and empathetic communication skills to encourage pro-health behaviors and adherence to COVID-19 prevention guidelines.
It’s less about telling people what not to do — and more about promoting what everyone should be doing.
“The ambassadors have built a reputation for encouraging people on campus throughout the day,” Poston said. “Since the program launched, they have increased the amount of positive reinforcement of pro-health behavior, and that has definitely contributed to the overall sense of a safe community on campus.”
Jillian Coppola, an assistant field hockey coach who serves as the staff coordinator for the program, reviews reports submitted by ambassadors after each of their shifts, part of an effort to evaluate what’s working and what approaches might need to shift. Ambassadors estimate the number of people with whom they interacted — either to remind them of safety protocols or to commend and encourage positive behaviors — and assess how the community is doing with face coverings and social distancing.
Coppola said that since the program launched in August, she has seen a rise in the number of positive reinforcement interactions and a decline in the amount of times an ambassador has had to remind people about protocols.
“I think part of it is ambassadors becoming more comfortable in their roles and having some more experience with it, but also, students just really are following the rules they need to follow,” she said. “It’s definitely a credit to the students for being able to adjust to some really significant changes to their schedules and daily routines.”
Same skills, new context
Like students, staff are adapting, too — just ask many Brown employees working in athletics and dining services.
With Ivy League sports cancelled through February at a minimum, many coaches and athletics staff have transitioned into Healthy Ambassador roles; the same is true for retail food and residential dining workers, with many locations closed and a “grab and go” meal system replacing in-person dining.
“I’m really proud of the people who have just embraced the change,” Coppola said. “Many really took it on
and said, ‘Alright, I am going to make an impact in this capacity. This is going to be my role and I’m going to do it really well,’” Coppola said. “I think that is awesome.”
Linda Whittaker, an assistant manager of residential dining services who has worked at Brown for 24 years, has spent the semester managing shift schedules for the ambassadors. With dining operations requiring fewer workers, dozens of her colleagues have temporarily moved to roles in Facilities Management to help with extra cleaning and sanitization, while others are serving as Healthy Ambassadors within Dining.
“It’s quite a creative way to utilize the staff we have to turn this into a robust program,” Whittaker said. “It’s just providing such a great service and makes students, staff and faculty feel like they’re really being taken care of.”
Goodman said the creative effort to retain experienced Brown staff members has benefits for employees and students alike.
“It’s a great sign that this is where the University went to first,” he said. “I’m appreciative that we are not only working, but working to get better and improve the situation we’re all in. That’s why it’s a privilege to be in this position.”
While the transition to becoming an ambassador put many employees in new situations, many said they felt prepared for their new roles based on skill sets they had developed in their regular, pre-pandemic positions.
“Many of the ambassadors work in roles where they exercise strong interpersonal skills, care for the Brown community and have a track record of working collaboratively,” Poston said.
Coppola, for example, said the unpredictable nature of team sports positioned her well to anticipate the unexpected and helped her realize how well-suited she was to coordinate the ambassador program.
“With coaching, there’s always the unknown and the unpredictable, so you get used to rolling with that,” she said. “There’s a lot of fluidity with the Healthy Ambassadors program, as campus activity levels change — so with coaching, it has helped me be more flexible as we work through any challenges that may arise.”
JJ Addison, the assistant men’s and women’s water polo coach, said volunteering to become a Healthy Ambassador was a natural choice for him.
“I’m out here coaching people,” he said. Plus, being an ambassador has allowed for increased visibility of the thing he finds most important to the community during the pandemic: leading by example.
“That’s the easiest thing to do for all of us, and the most noticeable thing,” Addison said. “If you look around and see people doing the right thing, it’s easier for you to do the right thing.”
Many ambassadors say that their shifts have offered a change of scenery and a renewed sense of camaraderie. Whittaker, for example, says that she is interacting with people she never would have met before taking on this role.
“It’s a nice way to get to know folks around campus,” she said. “I’ve been here for 24 years, and I rarely would leave the buildings where I worked. It’s been quite enjoyable to explore campus and connect with new people.”
Goodman said that Brown students, faculty and staff alike have embraced the shared responsibility of protecting community health and safety and supporting each other — which has not only proven instrumental in the low number of COVID-19 cases to date at Brown, but in helping to build community at a time when the public health situation has made that a difficult endeavor.
“Before joining the program, I thought I was doing my part — social distance, wear a mask, follow all the guidelines issued by the University and the state,” he said. “But this is even greater. You have greater reach to effect better positive change to campus and to get back to normalcy. I feel fulfilled in this role, being able to help the cause of getting through this all together.”