Night shift: Student safety ambassadors provide a resource for the VCU community after dark

The ambassadors, part of the university’s transition to a more equitable public safety model, provide assistance when people need help but don't need to contact law enforcement.

Three students wearing safety vests pictured at night.
VCU's newly-hired Student Safety Ambassadors (from left) Carly Jackson, Ayanna Farmer-Lawrence and Mary Claryns Truz walk through the Compass on Nov. 17. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

If you’re looking for Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore Ayanna Farmer-Lawrence in the evenings, you’ll most likely find her around the Compass wearing a bright-yellow vest.

Farmer-Lawrence is a newly hired student safety ambassador for the VCU Police Department — and her vest is both a uniform and visual identifier for VCU community members.

This past summer, the university announced a plan for police reform initiatives, including workforce realignment and the hiring of non-sworn, unarmed employees to serve as resources on campus when members of the VCU community need assistance, but do not feel compelled to contact law enforcement.

Carly Jackson wearing a safety vest.
Carly Jackson models a designated, uniform vest during her shift. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

John Venuti, VCU’s associate vice president of public safety and chief of police, said with safety and well-being as the focus, a student may be a better alternative option for needs such as asking for directions, answering questions about transportation, working at events and walking people to their cars at night.

“The safety ambassadors will be present in places with high volumes of students, such as outside the University Student Commons and the Compass,” Venuti said. “They will predominately work at night because in the spring 2020 perception of safety survey, students told us they feel less safe at night.”

The three safety ambassadors received 40 hours of training and are also tasked with reporting safety concerns they come across during their shifts. In their first two nights working, they reported to police about damaged property, a traffic light failure and a fire at a business on West Broad Street.

Farmer-Lawrence, a homeland security and criminal justice major in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, said the part-time position coincides with her goal of becoming a special agent for the FBI. She was drawn to become a safety ambassador to learn from police, build relationships, network and be ready for internships or employment opportunities upon graduation.

“I thought it was a good idea to be that person that [people] can go to if they have a problem, but don’t want to go to the police directly,” Farmer-Lawrence said. “It’s a good idea given what’s going on in society currently.”

Venuti said he looks forward to hearing feedback from community members about the new program and plans to expand the number of student safety ambassadors, and their designated locations, in spring 2021. 

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