A student traverses campus on the first day of classes. While mask-wearing and biweekly surveillance testing are a few of the reasons for Cornell's minimal new case count, peer ambassadors are another reason, who have modeled the University's public health guidelines.

Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

A student traverses campus on the first day of classes. While mask-wearing and biweekly surveillance testing are a few of the reasons for Cornell's minimal new case count, peer ambassadors are another reason, who have modeled the University's public health guidelines.

September 29, 2020

‘Agents of Change’: Cornell Student Ambassadors Are Part of the Public Health Plan

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About a month into the fall semester, Cornell has seemingly slowed the spread of COVID-19, reporting just a handful of new cases in recent weeks.

While mask-wearing and biweekly surveillance testing are a few of the reasons for the decline, another factor has helped: Cornell’s peer ambassadors.

This group of students has been present on campus since move-in on Aug. 23, distributing personal protective equipment and promoting model behavior by encouraging students to socially distance and to wear masks.

With that phase of campus reopening behind them, their stationary supply tents will soon become mobile.

“For our second round, we’re going to have people walking around with bags, handing things out and telling people to just live smarter,” said peer ambassador Samantha Noland ’21.

But as students get increasingly comfortable on campus, ambassadors want students to remain diligent, continue to mask up and follow physical distancing measures.

“As ambassadors, we want to get past the social barrier of COVID as agents of change. Sometimes people would try to avoid [us] at all costs, but [we’re] not scary. Just take the mask — you can never have too many,” said peer ambassador Bianca Santos-Declet ’23.

To advance the program beyond distributing supplies, Cornell launched a group of COVID-19 peer consultants, a second group of volunteers that works to improve public health strategies and reimagine campus events.

“It’s sort of like a student think tank with students who want to be a part of the conversation in their respective communities, student groups or different parts of campus,” Noland said.

To limit the spread of the virus, Cornell has called on students to hold each other accountable. While there are several rungs within the student volunteer ladder, the program is not responsible for any kind of reporting or policing.

“A common misconception is that we’re enforcers. That’s not the idea,” Noland said. “We’re meant to be inspirational and influential rather than informants. As ambassadors and consultants, we want to know how we can shift behavior and respond to the needs of students.”

Integral to the peer ambassador program are the coordinators who oversee volunteers. In addition to ensuring a strong presence on campus, coordinators make sure that ambassadors regularly sign up for shifts, have enough supplies and run the group’s social media campaign.

“For peer ambassadors who aren’t on campus for the semester, they have the opportunity to regularly engage with our social media campaign to share our content and disseminate that knowledge,” said Kaylee Zhong ’23.

However, acting as models of public health for the Cornell community doesn’t make living through a pandemic any easier. As the semester progresses, coordinators want to focus on a message of unity for its ambassadors and everyone else on campus.

“Our ability to stay on campus this semester still depends on all of us working together,” said Ria Tripathi ’21. “Every little action, from wearing a mask to staying six feet apart, makes a big difference.”