When the small East Valley town of Guadalupe was struck particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Arizona State University joined public health entities to implement ways to curb the spread of the coronavirus there.
ASU student Stephanie Zamora played a vital, visible and — as it turns out — award-winning role to convey important information to the mostly Latino and Native American residents of the town.
As the town’s public information officer and a member of the Guadalupe COVID-19 Community Response Team, Zamora effectively communicated the serious consequences of contracting the coronavirus and the means to avoid it.
Zamora’s successful communications efforts earned her a share of recognition the team received from ASU President Michael Crow last month. Crow honored the team with the 2021 President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness in an Oct. 26 ceremony.
“I thought I’d be (in Guadalupe) for four weeks and help them with any communications they needed,” said Zamora, a graduate student in the School of Public Affairs. “But I’ve been there a year and a half now, and it’s one of the finest, most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. The mentorship I’ve received there … I couldn’t put a price on it.”
Zamora, who expects to earn her Master of Public Administration degree in May 2022, is a Marvin Andrews Fellow in Urban Management.
She started her public information officer service in July 2020 after being recommended for the job by George Pettit, the Andrews Fellowship’s former coordinator. Town manager Jeff Kulaga hired Zamora, who is a trained Spanish-language translator and interpreter, specifically to communicate information regarding the pandemic to town residents.
About half of those living in Guadalupe are of Mexican descent, and the other half have Pascua Yaqui tribal lineage. Zamora said the town is close to her heart as it looks much like where she grew up. She came to the United States from Mexico at age 3 and lived in the Alhambra neighborhood of Phoenix.
A job with many facets to communicate using many faces
Zamora's COVID-19 awareness efforts had many facets. She produced several forms of communication, including flyers and graphics promoting COVID-19 testing and explaining how people could care for themselves. She also advertised the town’s “promotoras” program, named for lay Latino/Hispanic community members trained as health education workers.
“One reason our collaboration was so successful is that we had trusted community members who were the faces of the distribution of these services and information,” Zamora said. “These women were incredibly personable and friendly. It was like talking to one of my aunts or my mother’s best friends.”
Those personable faces also included those of firefighters and senior residents, as well as elected officials who recorded public service announcements.
“There was also a huge partnership with the Pascua Yaqui tribe to get to our residents as well. That was my role,” Zamora said.
She remains the town’s public information officer today, although her role has changed from communicating prevention measures such as wearing masks, physically distancing and hand washing to telling residents about available services, such as vaccine clinics and economic help for those affected by the pandemic, and whom to contact for those services.
Respecting, honoring residents’ traditions
The question she frequently asked herself was how the town could convey these messages while respecting and honoring residents’ traditions. She created signs in English and Spanish that were posted at the town cemetery to tell the hours it was open and what precautions visitors should take during Día de los Muertos. Other visual messages included demographically appropriate graphic characters washing their hands, getting tested, distancing and getting vaccinated, displayed on posters around town.
“Maybe it’s a little cartoon character to someone, but I made sure that graphics looked like our community members,” Zamora said.
“The goal is to make the message easy to digest,” she added. “It needs to be, ‘Here’s the message, here’s what you need to do and here’s how to get services,’ and to make it culturally relevant.”
ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions was one of the team’s collaborators in a partnership that included ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, the town, Native Health, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
The team was headed by epidemiologist Megan Jehn, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, which is in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The team also included two others from Watts College: School of Social Work Professor Michael Shafer and alumnus Laura Meyer, who earned a master’s degree in social work.
Jehn said Zamora served the team as an effective communicator and collaborator.
“Through the pandemic, it was critically important to share health information in ways that were culturally and linguistically appropriate for the community. Stephanie provided information about public health interventions like social distancing, masking and regular washing of hands in a way that was culturally relevant and accessible to all by sharing it in English and Spanish,” Jehn said. “She mentored our public health team on the use of different communication applications, including the do's and don’ts for public health messaging in Guadalupe.”
Zamora also utilized marquees, billboards and flyers to inform town residents about the upcoming testing and vaccination events, Jehn said.
Another team member, Gloria Karirirwe, an ASU program manager in health and clinical partnerships, said Zamora was instrumental to the town’s response to the pandemic.
“As the public information contact, she greatly supported our field and remote activities," Karirirwe said. “For instance, she was aware that the ASU field team was not known within the town, and yet we had to conduct home visits. So, Stephanie straight away shot a video of the team and posted it on the town’s social media pages. This improved the reception we got afterward.”
Designing new communications
Today Zamora is designing new communications vehicles to encourage COVID-19 vaccination while continuing her Andrews Fellowship at the Scottsdale City Manager’s Office.
“I never thought I’d still be here a year and a half later. (Guadalupe town manager) Jeff Kulaga taught me that when you’re a public servant, it’s OK to be in the background and to let the results speak for themselves while not being the focal point of the effort.”
Still, she said, to be part of the team that received the President’s Medal makes her feel incredibly proud and grateful to be among such dedicated, creative and resourceful people as those on the team.
“I feel so honored, like the luckiest person on Earth to work for Guadalupe,” Zamora said. “Others may have a different image of it, but I see it as a place where people really care for one another. And I’m grateful to be part of the team that can give services to them.”
Karirirwe called Zamora a true professional and collaborator.
“She closely worked with our team to develop culturally appropriate and informational posters urging residents to practice public health interventions. She made time to teach and mentor us on what to do while developing these posters, what is acceptable and visually appealing so that the message is well received,” Karirirwe said. “I cannot say enough about Stephanie, except that she has been a truly helpful and visionary partner for the Guadalupe COVID-19 Community Response Team.”
Zamora said that once she graduates, she’s certain about what kind of work she’ll do.
“Whichever way life goes, I know I want to be a servant to others,” Zamora said. “I want to give back to the public. Whatever I do, that is what I will be dedicating myself to.”