As the initial stages of the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic took root in the United States and public awareness grew in January, February, and March of 2020, institutions of higher education quickly became swept up in the spiraling crisis.  They prepared at first slowly, then hurried to respond as the pandemic’s first wave exploded in early March.  With spring breaks generally scheduled for mid-March, many institutions swiftly chose to close down their on-campus housing and in-person instruction rather than risk outbreaks.1  Still, students returning from spring break travel did spread the virus, and concerns that this could happen influenced further campuses to close down in-person instruction.2, 3  Within weeks, discussion turned to “reopening” campuses.  Institutions including the American College Health Association (ACHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed guidelines and recommendations that are regularly updated.4, 5, 6, 7  Nonetheless institutions were rarely able to translate these guidelines into consistent messaging and action plans, and a patchwork of policies and approaches developed through the spring, summer, and fall.8  Some institutions strove to maintain as much on-campus life as possible and others chose to minimize in-person instruction and activities.  Political imperatives – including relationships between public institutions and their governing boards and legislatures – exacerbated this difficult decision-making across the country.9  In the authors’ home state, Kansas, the legislature chose, on privacy grounds, to put narrow legal bounds around contact tracing efforts, limiting them to employees of county and state health authorities.10

University mitigation policies also rarely considered ways that students themselves could become proactively engaged in addressing pandemic response.  Nonetheless, students became involved in varied ways, some institutionally driven and some grass-roots.  Rice University impaneled students as enforcers of punitively-focused policies, leading to controversy.11  Elsewhere, student groups began campaigns geared toward influencing their peers’ behavior, sometimes with attention-grabbing language, like in the “F*CK IT WON’T CUT IT ™” initiative approved at Boston University.12  Medical schools and their students considered how to combine research and social engagement, with one notable project emerging from the Penn State College of Medicine at Hershey.13, 14, 15  The University of Ottawa brought a pedagogical optic to similar project.16  Several student researchers at Davidson College participated in the creation of an influential study tracking variance in institutions’ responses to the pandemic.17  These scholarly and pedagogical initiatives began being reported in the literature in mid-October, 2020, and most were still in pre-print form in December.

By November 2020 reports and recommendations began to emerge from institutions including the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and the Minnesota Department of Health arguing that “college students can enhance the creation and implementation of policies that affect them”18 and that universities should “engage students, faculty, and staff in developing creative promotion of new norms and solutions to concerns about changing norms.”19  These statements, while important, still leave vague how to pursue such engagement, who can best facilitate it, and how to understand what metrics might establish success.  In this paper, the authors outline a pilot project seeking to engage student entrepreneur-influencers with both campus and community constituencies. The goal – still in process – is to identify and establish best practices that can be easily replicated by other institutions and groups. 

The Need: Linking Campus and Community Stakeholders

Fort Hays State University (FHSU), where the lead authors serve as faculty directors of key units charged with increasing student engagement – the Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robbins College of Business and Entrepreneurship (RCOBE) and the university-wide Honors College – has a varied institutional profile.  It is a 4-year state comprehensive university with a campus in Hays, Kansas, that is home to approximately 4,500 on-campus students and 1,000 full-time equivalent faculty and staff.  Since the late 1990s, when it became an early leader in online education, it has maintained a leading presence in this modality.  Currently, FHSU enrolls over 6,900 fully-online students from all over the USA and the world.  Approximately 4,500 students in China are served through partnerships with universities there.  FHSU is also committed to earning recognition through the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification. 

The lead authors both came to FHSU in 2019 and in their current roles work with stakeholders across the campus and in the community to foster engagement and strengthen educational and career outcomes.  Dr. Talkington, as part of her duties directing the Center for Entrepreneurship, directs the Dane G. Hansen Scholarship Hall (Hansen Hall), a unique living-learning community named for the foundation supporting it.  Mr. Ronald Storrer is the graduate assistant in this living community.  It provides scholarships to students interested in a broad range of entrepreneurship experiences who explore how to develop their ideas. The Hansen Foundation is “committed to providing opportunities for the people of Northwest Kansas to enjoy the highest possible quality of life,” including in education, health care, economic development, and the arts – all areas deeply affected by the pandemic.20  Dr. Amidon directs the Honors College, in which students are expected to demonstrate ongoing engagement with academic, campus, and community affairs beyond the classroom.  Both lead authors therefore sought ways to strengthen student engagement while aligning with FHSU’s messaging about a compassionate, innovative, community-oriented response to an unprecedented challenge.

As soon as it became apparent in early March that the COVID-19 pandemic would not spare FHSU’s operations, the authors began considering options for maintaining the strength of their co-curricular programs while addressing pandemic response.  During the spring, they discussed numerous ideas and explored the landscape of emerging best practices reported by other universities.  In May, Dr. Talkington and Dr. Najd studied contact tracing and authored a logbook with guidelines for tracking one’s own interactions to facilitate contact tracing if necessary.21  This led them and Dr. Amidon to explore how universities would have to approach the contact tracing problem if they wished to resume in-person operations in the fall.  One initial brainstorm was to have the Hansen Hall students hold focus groups about contact tracing, and participate in developing the logbook as a commercial product.  This idea was discarded after the Kansas legislature passed the bill in June that limited contact tracing participation.  Emergent summer clusters of transmission brought about by student parties and athletic team practices in college towns pointed inexorably to the wave of cases that would come in the fall.22

            After they had reflected on these initial considerations, the authors realized that facilitating the emergence of a network of campus social entrepreneur-influencers would have the greatest chance of developing impact and minimizing political concerns.  The students for whom they have primary responsibility – in the Hansen Hall cohort and the Honors College – have specifically selected themselves for special opportunities and challenges in engagement, leadership, and innovation.  A student-centered, faculty-facilitated initiative could therefore link experiential learning, co-curricular goals, and pandemic response together.  This insight was rapidly confirmed as further faculty and student affairs staff – first in the Department of Health and Human Performance, and then in the central office of FHSU Online, the university’s online division, found the initiative a compelling opportunity for their students. The Dean of RCOBE and the President of the FHSU Foundation also provided support including three $1000 scholarships for student advocacy.  This network of campus stakeholders provided a critical mass for the development and iteration of an entrepreneurial solution.

The Solution: GET SMART ABOUT COVID-19 ™

One core goal of Get Smart ™ is to increase understanding of the science of COVID-19 so campus and community citizens can make informed choices known to reduce transmission of the virus. To establish a baseline of well-grounded scientific and medical knowledge that students and other stakeholders could see as authoritative but also accessible, the authors chose an online curriculum created by leading epidemiologists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  This seven-hour online COVID-19 Contact Tracing course, launched in May, is delivered free of charge on the Coursera platform, facilitated by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.23  Dr. Talkington spoke with the Dean of the Bloomberg School and learned that no other institutions were using the course to educate communities in this fashion.  The Dean encouraged Dr. Talkington to do so as widely as possible.

Students, faculty, and community members can use knowledge and vocabulary gained from this course to collaborate on good practices that can minimize misunderstandings, misinformation, and mixed messages.  The lead authors – scholars of the history, social practice, and business of biomedicine but not health practice or communication professionals – saw the course as a way to link their existing disciplinary expertise to immediate community concerns.  They also publish this article in an open-source spirit.  They hope it might assist other institutions to motivate student engagement and COVID-19 awareness.  

For students and community members, earning the certificate through the prestigious Johns Hopkins/Coursera platform is also a useful resume-building credential – and in Kansas can lead to employment as a contact tracer with a county health department.  As the pandemic progressed in the fall, the intense personal and political pressure on county health department staff in Kansas, and attendant attrition among them, made national news.24  Even as clear data began to emerge from studies in Kansas that policies like local mask mandates were effective mitigation measures, political resistance continued.25

The Get Smart ™  initiative developed organically and iteratively in four phases after launching in late August 2020.  From the authors’ needs analysis described above, they knew that the most effective communication strategy among stakeholders – and especially among students – would come from peer-to-peer persuasion.  Dr. Talkington’s dissertation work, in which she studied communities of innovators and their contributions to sustainability, develops a model called OSIPP (for Open Source, Iterative Process, Proximity indicating the three primary determinants of innovation).  Her scholarship further informed the authors’ planning process.26

  • In Phase 1, the authors began by encouraging students to complete the Johns Hopkins/Coursera course and begin sharing their knowledge with others.  The initial student groups approached in this way to advocate for a shared knowledge base about COVID-19 were the 15 students living in Hansen Hall, another 20 students enrolled in entrepreneurship courses, 93 Honors College students, and 20 on-line students in a Health and Human Performance course taught by Dr. Jamie Schwandt.  By the end of the fall 2020 semester, approximately 25 students had completed the full 7-hour course and earned the certificate.
  • In Phase 2, during September and October and then ongoing, students were encouraged to share their knowledge beyond the campus, especially with student hotspots.  FHSU on-campus dormitory housing fortunately remained, according to the data made available from voluntary surveillance testing before and during the semester, largely free of major outbreaks.
  • Phase 3 developed parallel to Phase 2.  In it, the lead authors developed an outreach workshop to provide best-practices guidance to local businesses and individuals in the community.  After student feedback about the Johns Hopkins/Coursera course, they decided that promoting the entire seven-hour certificate curriculum to broader constituencies was asking too much, and would be difficult to use in a networked, socially engaged way.  They therefore sketched out a two-hour Zoom workshop entitled “The Intersection of Public Health and Business: Applying COVID-19 Science to your Workplace & Lifestyle” in which participants would explore in real time the introductory 50 minutes of the course to develop common vocabulary about principles of virus transmission, natural history, and epidemiology.  During the first hour of the workshop, participants would remain in the main Zoom area while the facilitators and other expert guests would be available in a breakout room to address questions and discuss feedback between the sub-modules of the course.  This brief but frequent decompression time with the facilitators in the breakout room proved to be vital for the interactive and informal nature of the workshop.  The first of these workshops was delivered in late November to faculty and colleagues as a ‘soft opening’ in order to get participants’ comments and suggestions to improve the format.  A second was provided soon after at the invitation of Dr. Greg Atkins, Interim Assistant Director of FHSU Online, and geared toward developing ideas among online students around the state and country.  Participants joined from as far away as Pennsylvania.
  • In Phase 4 the lead authors formalized these events in concert with the FHSU Management Development Center (MDC) for a broad-based community audience.  The first of these workshops under MDC auspices, with the participation of Mr. Jason Kennedy, Director of the Ellis County Health Department, took place on December 15, 2020.  To help defray the costs of publicity, the MDC charges a fee of $35 for the workshop, and works with the authors to spread the word through internal university groups, social media, personal business and non-profit networks, university relations, local print and online news sources, and county health departments in the region.  Further workshops are scheduled each month in January, February, March, and April of 2021.  While the holiday season is a challenging time to maintain such networking, the pandemic will not subside until well into 2021, and the need remains acute.  Alongside these workshops for community professionals, a student-moderated version of the workshop, led by students from the first Hansen Hall and Honors College cohorts from Phase 1, will be offered free of charge to their own networks. 
  • The authors’ ongoing qualitative assessment efforts – including through feedback from professional colleagues – have validated their approach, and it has grown successfully across the campus.


Get Smart™ is an ongoing, iterative project.  Even once the pandemic begins to recede, it will provide a valuable model for further engagement efforts between students, other university stakeholders, and the broader community.  Provisional results, however, are revealing:

  • Student interest has been only moderate.  Most of the approximately 25 students who completed the full contact tracing certificate appear to have self-selected because they are interested in health professions, are among the most motivated and engaged student leaders, or have had direct personal experiences with COVID-19.
  • Because many students – especially highly engaged and motivated ones – express some frustration with online teaching and find online events less engaging than in-person ones, participation may have been more difficult to motivate. 
  • Many traditional sources of campus social engagement, especially fraternities and sororities and athletic  teams, were early sites of COVID-19 spread in August and September.  Since few young people experience severe disease, a sense of urgency about transmission may have dissipated among these cohorts at a time when infections in the broader community were just ramping up.18
  • The students who showed the greatest interest in Get Smart ™ would,  under normal circumstances, also lead high-profile lives on campus.  Their increased knowledge about the disease may have paradoxically undermined the initiative, because it reinforced their commitment to distance themselves from social activities. The authors did not foresee this possibility. 
  • As the science of COVID-19 became politically charged, younger students (particularly in the Hansen Hall and Honors College cohorts) may have become increasingly reluctant to court public controversy by seizing these leadership opportunities.  Older, nontraditional students (particularly in the FHSU Online cohort) seem to be more likely to see speaking up for science and public health as a civic duty.
  • After reflecting on this apparent reluctance, three $1,000 scholarships were established by the Center for Entrepreneurship to incentivize students to contribute to the initiative during Spring semester 2021.  
  • As the authors write this, evidence continues to mount that the pandemic will continue  to take a severe toll in Western Kansas. On December 11, 2020, USA Today declared Gove County, Kansas (population 2,612) to be “the deadliest place in America.”27  One out of 132 citizens has died from Covid-19, and the predicted holiday peak of the pandemic has not yet arrived.  Gove County is located 45 miles west of FHSU.  The authors’  personal experience with the people of Gove County convinces them that their goal of engaging the university community with regional citizens in a person-to-person way is indispensable.
  • Despite extensive publicity, interest in Phase 3 and Phase 4 events has been lower than expected – participants have been self-selectors interested in sharing specific personal and professional experiences with COVID-19.  Ms. Sabrina William, director of the MDC, reports that her Facebook posts about these workshops received no “likes” whatsoever.  Local citizens did not express opposition, but seemed to be demonstrating pandemic fatigue.
  • The participants in the Phase 3 and 4 workshops proved very conversational and engaged, often sharing difficult stories of professional and personal consequences of the pandemic, as well as genuine concern for how to address it in their daily lives.  Clearly, they will carry the project’s message outward into the community, and this constitutes an important success.
  • The authors are further gratified that their model seems to be working in parallel to similar ones at other Kansas non-profit organizations.  The Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) of Wichita has developed, since November, an online person-to-person discussion program called “Kansas Beats the Virus.”  While this initiative is not directly focused on sharing medical and scientific insights, it seeks to bring diverse groups of citizens together “in their own communities to inspire local solutions that keep Kansans healthy, schools and businesses open, and our economy strong amidst the pandemic.”28 The authors are already exploring ways to develop synergies with the KLC initiative.
  • Our analysis of outreach efforts did not reveal any obvious gaps or areas for improvement. Rather, we believe the level of response from the students and community members was a result of the many complicating factors addressed above.  As the project is further developed, the authors will seek ways to better assess these issues.
  • In sum, the authors are pleased with the strong commitment shown by the self-selected students and community members who have engaged themselves with Get Smart ™.  They hope the project will be useful to other universities and communities as they seek their own solutions to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 


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