Spread Bearcat spirit, not coronavirus

Social norms campaign champions healthy behaviors

Baxter the Bearcat sets an example for the campus community by wearing a face mask — just one way to work together to have a successful fall semester by limiting spread of the coronavirus. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Baxter the Bearcat sets an example for the campus community by wearing a face mask — just one way to work together to have a successful fall semester by limiting spread of the coronavirus.
Baxter the Bearcat sets an example for the campus community by wearing a face mask — just one way to work together to have a successful fall semester by limiting spread of the coronavirus. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

How do you limit virus transmission on a college campus in the midst of a pandemic; maintain the mental and physical well-being of students, staff and faculty; and make it cool? This was the task set before the Return to Campus Student Well-being Committee, one of several committees that worked tirelessly over the summer months to prepare for an uncertain fall semester. The short answer, according to Liam Lane ’20, a graduate student in biomedical anthropology and a student representative on the committee, is that it will take everyone working together to make this fall a success.

“Everyone who was here in the spring knows how difficult it was to pack everything up and leave Binghamton and move to a virtual format,” said Lane. “No one wants that to happen this fall, so it’s really going to be on everyone to promote healthy habits and make sure we’re keeping everyone safe.”

And that’s where the committee’s idea for the “Spread Bearcat Spirit, not Coronavirus” social norm campaign originated.

What is social norming?

Social norm campaigns use scientific data to correct misperceptions among a population about a specific behavior. In this case, the key messages the committee wants to communicate are about simple steps everyone must take to prevent the spread of the virus: wear a mask, wash hands often, avoid large gatherings, don’t travel out of town and stay 6 feet apart. The idea is that presenting persistent reminders that these healthy behaviors will make a difference will help set cultural expectations for the campus community and — hopefully — encourage widespread participation.

“Even though many of us may be familiar with guidelines and rules to help manage coronavirus, it’s important to re-emphasize the simple steps to prevent spread and to make it very clear that Binghamton has expectations for all of our community members,” said Cindy Cowden, senior associate director of Campus Recreational Services and head of the Student Well-being Committee. “The success of the semester relies on everyone participating in safe and responsible behaviors.”

What to look for on campus this fall

The committee commissioned a series of posters that are displayed around campus, each featuring Baxter the Bearcat participating in a healthy behavior. During move-in week it has hosted a mask-decorating table, and launched a social media campaign that kicked off with a Bearcat Chat video featuring host Jacob Wilkins and student representatives from the committee. The committee also hopes to collaborate with student organizations once classes begin to encourage a grassroots angle among the student population.

A second committee initiative has involved creating and aggregating mental health resources on campus for students who may be experiencing a sense of isolation, whether they are actually in mandated quarantine or isolation, or just social distancing. The University is providing some safe in-person events and activities, but also offers a host of virtual opportunities for students to connect, which are also available to students in quarantine or isolation.

“We created a new program called Digital Student Engagement Communities on Discord” said Lane, “and we’re trying to connect students with other students, faculty and staff with similar interests by creating a virtual space to come together on a common interest.”

Megan Fey, a biochemistry major and a student representative on the committee, thinks social media will play an important role in helping students maintain their mental well-being and overall success this fall. “Social connections with other humans are so important and they are such an important factor in how well you do academically,” she said.

Looking forward

As a senior, Fey is anxious but hopeful that the Bearcat community will rally together to keep each other safe and on campus all year. “Think about your neighbors,” she said. “We’re all in this together. So just wear a mask. Be courteous. This isn’t going to get better if we don’t work together.”