Student-led initiative promotes health during pandemic

The Peer Leader Initiative, a new group on campus, is encouraging students to follow COVID-19 mitigation strategies, like wearing face coverings.


Katie Goodale

Director for Student Wellbeing and Harm Reduction Initiatives Tanya Villhauer speaks in an interview with The Daily Iowan on Feb. 21, 2019.

Lillian Poulsen, News Reporter

A group of students on campus are spearheading a Peer Leader Initiative to encourage students to practice healthy habits to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Senior Behavioral Health Consultant for Student Wellness Steph Beecher and Director for Student Wellbeing and Harm Reduction Initiatives in the Division of Student Life Tanya Villhauer started the group in July under the direction of Dean of Students Angie Reams.

The Peer Leader Initiative will advise student leaders on how best to encourage their peers to follow safe practices, they said.

Villhauer said they reached out to different student organizations on campus, including Undergraduate Student Government and Women’s Resource and Action Center, to find student leaders who would be interested in creating initiatives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

The group is composed of about 40 student leaders from across campus, Villhauer said.

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, 922 students have tested positive with the coronavirus since the start of the semester. The Peer Leader Initiative hopes to prevent this continued spread by rewarding students who wear their face coverings and encouraging students who do not, Villhauer said.

University of Iowa senior Savannah DeGroot, who is a member of the Peer Leader Initiative, said the first initiative the group worked on is the Healthy Habit Wagon, where starting Monday, students are driving golf carts around campus to give prizes to people who wear face coverings.

She added they will hand out protective equipment to those who aren’t wearing any, as well.

“I think it’s something that campus could really use right now,” DeGroot said. “We were looking for ways to spread positivity while also being cognizant of the things that are going on in our world. Sprinkling a bit of joy into someone’s day is what we’re trying to do.

The students hope to encourage people to wear their face coverings, rather than shaming them for not, Beecher said.

“We saw two people without masks. One of them forgot their mask, which is totally a legit thing that can happen. We had extra on hand, so we gave him one,” Beecher said. “It’s a great, positive experience for everybody on campus and I think we need that right now.”

Students will drive the Healthy Habit Wagons every day this week during lunch and dinner times, DeGroot said. They hand out prizes including reusable straws, drawstring bags, and protective equipment to students, she said.

Beecher said the Peer Leader Initiative plans to continue to meet to discuss other ways they can promote healthy habits on campus, even after the pandemic.

“It’s an ongoing kind of thing we’re doing. Things change on a daily basis,” Beecher said. “This group is really flexible in thinking how we can change behaviors given the current climate.”

Villhauer said with the efforts from the university and other students on campus, the Peer Leader Initiative hopes students can have a safe and healthy semester.

“This is one small piece of the puzzle that hopefully we all can contribute to making sure that we can have a successful fall,” Villhauer said. “I think there’s a lot of things out there that the university and different realms are doing, so this is just one small piece of that.”

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