Despite Pushbacks Against Mandates, Campuses Amp Up Vaccination Efforts

Campus leaders around the nation are feeling a renewed sense of hope as they prepare to open in person, now that everyone over the age of 12 is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. For a lot of them, it will be their first time reopening campus grounds since shutting their doors in early March 2020 to help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

But for most campuses, the hope rests on a condition: a mandate requiring all community members to be vaccinated before classes begin. Vaccinated students are working with campus administrators to dispel myths and encouraging their peers to get vaccinated. 

Dominican University, a private Catholic university, in River Forest, Illinois, is one of over 360 private and public college campuses that require every faculty, student, and community member to be fully vaccinated by the end of August. In academic circles, Dominican is known as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), where nearly 60 percent of the student population identify as a part of the Hispanic community. 

“As a Catholic institution, a part of our mission is to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world, and the vaccine mandate is a reflection of who we are,” says Tara Segal, assistant director of the university ministry. 

Segal adds that the mandate was decided after careful consideration of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as well as the safety and equity of their students, especially as cases begin to rise again due to the new Delta variant.  

“So many of our students are essential workers, their families are essential workers or they’re undocumented or part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – and if you were to look at a map, a large part of the geographical areas where COVID hit the hardest in Chicago are areas where our students come from,” says Segal. "So, it was very important to us to mandate the vaccine for their safety.”  

To ensure that all students are aware of the mandate, Segal employed two student ambassadors as a part of the university ministry’s ‘Faith in the Vaccine’ fellowship program, an initiative sponsored by the University Ministry, Offices of Student Success and Engagement, and the Office for Civic Learning. The program also employed other student ambassadors across six other community sites, including churches and youth development organizations, and is a part of the larger ‘Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors’ project created and sponsored by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).  

The student ambassadors at Dominican undertook a daunting task – calling every one of the campus’ 3,189 students – informing them about the mandate, vaccine resources, and locations, noting medical and religious reasons for exemptions, and in some cases, discussing the importance of the vaccine with students who are pushing back against the mandate and are hesitant to get vaccinated.  

Some of the student ambassadors were asked about microchipping, Segal says. “All of the ambassadors at one point or another were asked ‘you don't even know what goes into the vaccine, why would you do that?’ And one of my ambassadors said, ‘well, that's funny, you know, I don't really know what's in ibuprofen,’ and approached it that way, and all of the ambassadors are like, snaps to that one!” 

In addition, Dominican also partnered with Loop Medical Center and the Cook County Public Health to offer on-campus vaccination sites – a move, Segal explains, that was taken to ensure every member of the campus community had equal access and opportunity to get vaccinated. 

At the beginning of summer there was a lot of struggle to get a vaccine appointment, and the United Center was the dominant place for Chicago residents to get the vaccine – a place that was being staffed by people in uniform, which posed an entirely different challenge,” says Segal. 

She noted that the police presence can deter undocumented students from scheduling vaccine appointments. “For Dominican to provide vaccine facility on-site made all the difference in the world for a lot of people, because they have already shared their information with us, and there’s an element of trust, where they know we are a safe sanctuary.” 

Despite university officials’ best efforts to offer vaccination resources to their community, some students remain hesitant and are pushing back against the mandate. At Arrupe College of Loyola University in Chicago, only 57 percent of the students had reported being vaccinated, two weeks before classes begin in August. 

Some of the students come from families or communities that are more hesitant about the vaccine, and that influences their decision,” says Sarah Shaaban, assistant dean for student success. 

She adds that religious leaders who students look up to also play an influential role in their perspectives on the vaccine – a statement corroborated by a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that found about one in five Americans—17 percent -- say they would look, or have looked, to a religious leader for information when deciding whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Shabaan recalls the story of a student who reached out to the campus social worker to get a religious exemption from the vaccine. The student, a non-denominational Christian, was following her pastor’s words: that the vaccine will alter her DNA – and she shouldn’t put something in her body that alters what God had created. The common myth has been disproven by the CDC, who confirm the vaccine does not interact with our DNA in any way.  

“She was obviously listening to someone who is an important religious figure in her life, so what we are doing is trying to provide education around vaccine research so people can feel comfortable in understanding why the vaccine is important,”  Shabaan says.  

As myths and misconceptions around the vaccine continue to perpetuate across social media platforms, some students, like Dyane Velazquez of the Vanguard University of Southern California, are using their platforms to dispel myths and share information from medical experts with their peers.  

Velazquez, who is also a Faith in the Vaccine Campus Ambassador, recalls a time when she was able to change a schoolmate’s perspective on the vaccine through her work.  

Velazquez had reshared a post from Lenox Hill Neurosurgery on her Instagram that tackled common COVID-19 vaccine myths – like false claims that the vaccine has a microchip, or that it is risky because it wasn’t studied on enough people. After seeing her post, a schoolmate reached out to her to share that she was still very confused about the vaccine and believed that some of the myths were true.  

I shared what I had learned through my research, especially from watching a webinar with Katalin Kariko, whose work helped develop the Pfizer vaccine,” says Velazquez. “I broke down the information in a way that was understandable, and emphasized that the effectiveness of the vaccine was backed up by science.” 

Though not all such interactions have been successful, Velazquez believes that it is important to consider both sides of the conversation, be willing to accept that you can’t change everybody’s opinion, and keep using your platform to educate and share research as much as possible.  

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.