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Never fear, the Husky Health Leaders are here (with 5,000 bottles of hand sanitizer)

Healthy Husky Leaders Erin Cowden and Akosua Boateng, handout protective face masks and hand sanitizer on Centennial Common. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Erin Cowden and Akos Boateng have the drill down pat. Before heading out on their campus rounds distributing face masks and sanitizer squirt bottles to students, the duo follows a familiar routine to keep themselves and others safe.

First, on go the yellow hoodies with “Healthy” written in all caps down the right sleeve and “Husky” on the left sleeve.

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“#ProtectthePackNU” is written on the back. Next, it’s time to stuff their black shoulder satchels with sanitizer, blinking red lights that cyclists clip onto backpacks, and face masks. Lots of face masks. Sometimes they carry the blue medical ones, at other times, colored varieties.

They are both wearing yellow masks printed with “Smile On,” an appropriate message considering that just before they make their way out the door, they bring the most important tool of their trade: positivity.

Cowden and Boateng will use that tool frequently over the course of several hours a day as Healthy Husky Leaders. As the university’s de facto health ambassadors, the former orientation leaders use kindness and a friendly demeanor to promote proper pandemic behavior within the Northeastern community.

Student Affairs oversees the group of about 45 undergraduate and graduate students who were interviewed and trained to serve on the front lines of a global respiratory disease. The U.S. and international students can be seen roaming the Boston campus in their familiar yellow and black garb seven days a week, starting as early as 9 in the morning to as late as 9 in the evening Monday through Friday.

They average about 18 hours a week each, in all providing more than 800 total hours of campus coverage weekly.

Healthy Husky Leaders Erin Cowden and Akosua Boateng, handout protective face masks and hand sanitizer on Centennial Common. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“We are primarily a liaison to students for information,” says Cowden. “Because ultimately, none of us wants the university to close down.”

Since the Healthy Husky Leader initiative began with the start of the fall

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semester, the student health advocates have distributed more than 6,000 masks and 6,000 silver-plated adhesive hooks to hang the masks from, as well as 4,500 bottles of Northeastern-branded sanitizer. And counting.

Success, though, isn’t measured by the number of masks they give away, but by

the number of people they engage with. In the last week of October, for example, Healthy Husky Leaders self-reported that they made direct contact with almost 4,500 students, faculty, and staff on the Boston campus.

The pandemic safety ambassadors do it all, but one thing they don’t do is serve as finger-wagging scolds. Hall monitor is not their job. Rewarding, informing, and encouraging good behavior is. In some instances, it’s as simple as reminding a forgetful student to slip a mask back over the mouth and nose after eating to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On one freakishly warm day in November, Centennial Common was packed with masked sun worshippers in shorts and T-shirts. Some busily typed on their Macs, others enjoyed chips and soda. Cowden and Boateng walked past a group of students kicking around a hacky sack in front of Shillman Hall.

Cowden is a third year student from Rhode Island who is focusing on international affairs and economics. There are three earrings in her left ear.

Boateng was born in Dallas but her family is from Ghana. The second year student is studying business and communications studies with a concentration in supply chain management. Both of her parents work in the health science field. During a conversation, Boateng’s Northeastern-branded yellow mask slips just low enough to reveal a silver nose ring.

They walk across Centennial Common, randomly approaching anyone and everyone.

“Even if someone is wearing a mask and doing everything they’re supposed to, we’ll still approach them anyway and see if they want any free PPE (personal protective equipment) just to make sure that they have it in the future,” says Cowden.

“If you’re being friendly and you’re a positive presence in their day, then they never really seem to mind us coming up to them.”

As if on cue, Geetanjali Scarff flagged down Boateng for sanitizer.

“They’re small and useful to carry around,” the fourth year biology major says. “They’re good to have when I’m on campus or at my home and can’t wash my hands easily.” 

Cowden and Boateng “are super nice and they’re doing a really good job,” Scarff adds.

It takes a healthy amount of gumption to walk up to strangers, and one or two encounters haven’t been pleasant. Even still, the normally reserved Boateng credits the Healthy Husky Leaders program for a calling greater than herself.

“It has taught me that I can be an extrovert and go up to people and advocate for our campus to be open,” she says. “It’s nice to be around people and make sure that our campus is safe and healthy.”

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