Jul. 06 2020

Students Take Lead on COVID-19 Response

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in New York City in March, Columbia Mailman School students and colleagues across the Columbia University Irving Medical Center have mobilized to provide support to their home away from home. More than 600 Columbia Mailman students have joined with hundreds of fellow students to volunteer their expertise to support hospital workers, patients, and communities citywide through the COVID-19 Student Service Corps (CSSC).

With the guidance of four faculty co-chairs across the medical center, including Columbia Mailman faculty Marina Catallozzi and Stephanie Grilo, CSSC student volunteers support the COVID-19 response in many different ways, from providing accurate information on how to prevent the spread of the virus to partnering with local community programs to help tutor children and alleviate food insecurity. In their own way, each volunteer has demonstrated leadership in the face of the public health crisis.

Olivia Balderes: Working Together to Solve a Problem

Olivia Balderes, an MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences, leads 76 public health volunteers and 15 medical student volunteers in the CSSC Patient Education Materials and Design team. She and her volunteers have partnered with community organizations like CHALK and The Door to develop COVID-19 related social media content and resource guides used by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia. They have also worked with Harlem Hospital and other local hospitals to design materials for patients, such as discharge packets with information on physical distancing in the home, proper cleaning of household items, and the use of PPE.   

“CSSC made it possible to collaborate with some incredible people from across the CUIMC campus,” she says. “I’ve had the chance to work with many Mailman and VP&S [Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons] students and faculty I would not have had the opportunity to work with otherwise. It’s become second nature for us to be organizers, pulling people with different expertise in to collectively solve a problem and create effective interventions.”

Her CSSC experience has reinforced the fact that public health students are always willing to support people to live healthier lives. “CSSC has shown me the incredible resolve and motivation of our community,” she said. “Even as people were finishing theses, and going into finals, we could not find enough projects for our volunteer core. It’s a testament to the responsibility we feel as practitioners of public health, and our dedication to our community.”

Chevara Joseph: Leadership in Action

Chevara Joseph, a rising second-year MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences, is the director of delivery for Hero Meals NYC, part of the Health and Wellness branch of CSSC. Hero Meals NYC supports local businesses and healthcare workers by providing meals to frontline workers while sponsoring neighboring restaurants, prioritizing businesses with the greatest need in communities near partner hospitals.

Recently, Joseph and her Hero Meals NYC team joined with Tampopo Ramen in Washington Heights to raise money for meals and hotel rooms for frontline workers at NYC Health + Hospitals residing in nearby hotels. The restaurant owners live-streamed a class on cooking ramen through on CSSC’s Facebook page, and viewers were encouraged to donate. “Sponsoring businesses that would have closed indefinitely due to the pandemic whilst displaying my gratitude and support for frontline workers, I have come across a multitude of people who are eager to unite and help one another during such perplexing times,” she says.

Joseph says a leadership development course with instructor and Columbia Business School alum Nayla Bahri helped prepare her for her role with CSSC. “A major segment of the class was spent on self-reflection to best understand how you react and portray yourself in group settings. This course taught me to recognize and embrace my strengths and how to apply them strategically when collaborating with different entities. Further, our discussion centered around Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr’s leadership during the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was critical in preparing me for leadership roles during unforeseeable health crises.”

Alexis Smith: Interdisciplinary Teams

Alexis Smith, MPH ‘20, is a co-leader of the CSSC Information Services Project. In this role, she organizes the production of patient- and staff-facing materials for local hospitals. The group, which is co-led by Columbia Mailman student Devin Gary, reviews scientific literature on COVID-19, employing their expertise in promoting health literacy to publish updates for frontline providers. One project involves creating materials for hospital patients and community members, including guides on social distancing.

Smith recruited a team of multilingual students to ensure that materials are translated into multiple languages, including Chinese, Arabic, and Portuguese. “It’s incredibly important to get something in your own language, especially when the information is regarding an issue like health.” Among the team’s translation projects: patient consent forms for NewYork-Presbyterian.

Smith credits her Columbia Mailman studies with teaching her how to work well in a group and lead. She points to her diverse classwork and work as a teaching assistant as practice for collaborating with other students with diverse skillsets. “CSSC is incredibly interdisciplinary. That reflects the nature of public health: answering the question of, how do we bring all the people to the table and come up with solutions.”

George Timmins: Looking Ahead

George Timmins, one of eight CSSC co-chairs, works closely on projects relating to social and emotional support for seniors, virtual education support and mentorship for children, providing food for public hospital staff, mental health and wellness initiatives for the CUIMC community, and telehealth monitoring of COVID patients. For example, he oversees the CSSC’s Child Abuse Prevention Project and works with other student leaders, including MPH student Jackie Saltarelli, to develop and disseminate infographics that address familial stress and organize activities for children, including a program to help children continue learning over the summer. 

“I have learned so much from the faculty and staff we work with at Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian, as well as from the students who I work with every day on these projects,” he says. “But I learn the most in our conversations with the directors of the community organizations and their members who are the true experts in the needs and solutions for their community.” 

Timmins says his public health coursework gave him the leg up to succeed with CSSC, particularly his training in program planning and evaluation through the MPH Core Curriculum and a course in evaluation taught by Professor Robert Fullilove. He also credits lessons on the social determinants of health from the Core and a dedicated class on the subject taught by Professor Kim Hopper, as well as skills on metrics he acquired through coursework on quantitative and qualitative research methods. 

Looking ahead, he says CSSC will evolve as the needs of the health system evolve, moving from an emergency volunteer organization to a sustainable service-learning organization with projects that will last long beyond the pandemic. “There may be a decrease in [COVID-19] cases, but this pandemic pulled back the curtain for many to reveal the incredible needs of the health system lost prior to the crisis of COVID-19,” he says.

To learn more about the CSSC and what our student body is doing to fight the pandemic, visit the Vagelos College page detailing their work and how you can get involved.