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Purdue Student Ambassador Program Helps Ensure Compliance During Pandemic

September 2020
Purdue University
Note: This article highlights the experiences of one United Educators (UE) member and doesn’t represent UE risk management or legal advice.

For institutions that are resuming on-campus operations, student compliance with COVID-19 protocols plays an essential role in community safety. If students fail to act responsibly, it will be much harder to provide in-person learning throughout the 2020-21 academic year.

At United Educators (UE) member Purdue University, two initiatives have been put in place to encourage students to police themselves:

  • Mandatory acknowledgement and participation in the “Protect Purdue Pledge
  • An ambassador program in which students encourage peers to follow the pledge and engage in safe behavior

Students at Purdue, a public university based in West Lafayette, Ind., clearly prefer in-person instruction and hands-on learning. The initiatives are among the university’s major tools to ensure in-person instruction remains possible, says Mark Kebert, director of domestic and global risk at Purdue’s Office of Risk Management.

The university hired more than 200 student ambassadors for its “Protect Purdue” program. Ambassadors receive about $9.50 an hour to support the university’s COVID-19 prevention strategies via social media, at campus events, and through community outreach. Purdue expected ambassadors to work five hours a week through Sept. 4 and two hours per week from Sept. 7 through Dec. 5.

Although the academic year only recently began, the ambassador program has been successful in the short term, Kebert says.

Encourage Student Compliance With a Pledge

Beyond recommending that students follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for COVID-19 prevention, higher ed institutions resuming on-campus operations should create a pledge outlining student responsibilities during the pandemic, Kebert recommends. This way students fully understand their responsibilities to keep themselves, classmates, and others safe.

“The pledge sets the expectation and asks students to commit to the expectation,” Kebert says. “It’s asking them to buy into it. It’s almost like a verbal contract.”

All Purdue students are expected to acknowledge and participate in the pledge, which has three components:

  • Protect myself. Monitor yourself for COVID symptoms. Report them if they occur. Properly clean your hands. Get a flu vaccination.
  • Protect others. Maintain social distancing. Stay home if you are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19. Wear a mask. Encourage others to remain committed to the pledge.
  • Protect the community. Keep clothing, belongings, personal spaces, and shared common areas clean. Participate in testing and contact tracing. Follow directions.

Consequences for violating the pledge vary depending on the behavior’s impact, the student’s prior conduct history, and the student’s willingness to change behavior. Consequences range from receiving a written notice reminding students of the Protect Purdue Plan to getting a notice of summary suspension pending resolution through a formal disciplinary process.

In August 2020, after a party, the research university suspended 36 students for reportedly not following pledge guidelines for social distancing and masks.

How Ambassadors Encourage Compliance

In summer 2020, Purdue’s COVID task force recommended creating the student ambassador program to help with compliance. Having ambassadors allows Purdue to convey COVID-19 guidance not just from the top down but from peer to peer.

Ambassadors mingle with other students ─ following CDC guidelines ─ and work with student organizations trying to organize events. They help coach students on appropriate on-campus behavior in a world of COVID. During discussions they might remind noncomplying students to wear masks, demonstrate how masks should be worn, and keep an acceptable physical distance from other classmates, for example. They also provide positive feedback to students in compliance.

Purdue trained ambassadors on how to tactfully approach fellow students without admonishing them, Kebert says. This helps avoid an emphasis on punitive action for noncompliance.

“The communication is, ‘We know that you as students want to do in-person learning, you want to be on campus, but we can’t get there without your cooperation,’” he says. “‘If we don’t work together, we’re going to close this.’”

Ideally, Purdue will create an environment of student willingness to be compliant.

Ambassadors’ responsibilities may include:

  • Produce and curate social media content, including Instagram takeovers and video from campus events. Ambassadors also may discourage inaccurate COVID information that others post online.
  • Create videos and vlogs to showcase and support Protect Purdue initiatives.
  • Organize and execute events, hosted either virtually or and outdoors.
  • Conduct community outreach, generating off-campus business partnerships and distributing collateral. “This may include many of our off-campus and on-campus student housing partners,” Kebert says. “It also would include any off-campus business partners where students may shop and or visit.”
  • Participate in internal community organizing by serving as a delegate in a student organization or a representative in community events, for example.

What to Look for When Hiring Ambassadors

More than 400 students applied to be ambassadors, so Purdue could be selective when choosing candidates. It sought organized, personable, self-starters with skills connected to social media, events, or community outreach/organizing.

Among the qualities your university should seek in student applicants if it creates its own program:

  • Takes responsibility for their own health and protecting others’ health
  • Exudes energy and enthusiasm about the university
  • Can “ignite and educate” students about keeping the institution safe
  • Motivated self-starter who inspires and encourages peers

Kebert believes ambassadors will remain on campus for as long as is necessary.

Purdue, founded in 1867, is located in an urban setting and has about 38,000 students at its main campus. Its overall enrollment is 69,000.

It has been a member since September 2003.