Student-led coalition offers peer-to-peer coronavirus education at Western Michigan University

KALAMAZOO, MI — A group of students are working to make sure bracing for an on-campus shutdown is not a challenge Western Michigan University and its students will need to face.

Around 30 students now make up what is known as the COVID-19 Student Coalition, a student-led group that serves as a coronavirus education resource and aims to reduce the spread of the virus on WMU’s campus, leaders of the group said an interview with MLive Wednesday.

Keeping a safe and healthy student population has never been more important for institutions across the state, Western being no exception. The coalition is working to inform their fellow students about practicing mitigation strategies in student oriented, peer-to-peer style.

In September, members of the coalition visited a socially-distanced open mic event on-campus, passing out face masks donated by a local business. The group has been creating student-centered infographics and posting information to its social channels.

Chemistry graduate student Melanie Mitchell, who spearheaded the COVID-19 Student Coalition back in August, now serves as the group’s coordinator.

Mitchell said her idea to organize the student-led safety effort came from a shared desire to finish the semester. without the hiccups that University of Michigan, Grand Valley State University and other institutions that have faced, like stay-at-home orders and partial shutdowns resulting from rising coronavirus cases.

“When (the laboratory) finally opened again, I wanted it to stay open,” Mitchell said. “I wanted the college experience to stay intact and I’m also for a teaching assistant, so I wanted students to stay safe and not get me sick, and I didn’t want to get them sick.”

As Western’s campus was closed to students throughout the summer, graduate students who would traditionally stay in Kalamazoo to complete research inside the school’s laboratories were shut out, causing some students to fall behind on research that requires the institution’s labs to complete.

The university has reiterated it will make targeted closures as needed and has no plans of a complete shutdown should coronavirus cases surge, but members of the coalition say they are hoping to minimize the spread of the virus so that closures aren’t being considered.

Alison Yelsma, a public health student and chair of the coalition, said she made her way to the coalition through mutual friends and classmates who shared her desire to return to in-person classes in a safe and low-risk way. President of Eta Sigma Gamma, a health education organization on WMU’s campus, Yelsma volunteered to help Mitchell with her efforts back in August.

“The biggest part was just getting students to really grasp the messaging coming from our higher ups — I was getting a lot of questions from peers just being in public health, where I was using more student friendly language, and I saw I could really help Melanie and it just made sense for other health students to be involved,” Yelsma said.

Yelsma plans to become an epidemiologist after she finishes school. Studying public health during a worldwide pandemic creates unmatched experiential