Reprinted with permission from Bethel University. View the full original article, which was published on Nov. 5, 2021.
While spring semester courses were coming to an end last May, Tanden Brekke, assistant director of service-learning and community engagement, and Joy Doan, professor of biological sciences, were just getting started. They joined forces to apply for an Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) grant for students to work on projects that help community members make informed vaccination decisions. These opportunities would ultimately help students gain hands-on experience promoting health equity while learning how to reduce barriers surrounding the COVID-19 vaccination.
These nine student-led projects would each receive $1,500 to invest resources in research and outreach opportunities as they shared scientific information about the COVID-19 vaccine with various communities around the Twin Cities. Brekke and Doan submitted their application mid-May, and by June 1, they were leading a cohort of students eager to continue some of the work they had already been doing throughout the semester.
Thanks to their specific areas of expertise, Brekke and Doan are able to guide and support students every step of the way. As a professor of biology, Doan naturally speaks the language of scientific research and helps students make information related to COVID-19 and the vaccine accessible to those who do not have a doctorate in the biological sciences. As a director of community engagement at Bethel, Brekke creates and oversees collaborations through Bethel’s partnership with Frogtown and Summit-University (FSU) neighborhoods. Students already participating in this partnership opportunity were excited to continue connecting with these neighborhoods as they considered the most effective ways to share information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I was excited that this project not only met an urgent need—but it also was an opportunity for students to grow their own organizing skills, their own agency, their own ability to see a challenge and to meet that challenge,” Brekke says. “A liberal arts education should be about growing students’ capacities to actually address the most urgent challenges of our time. And if they're just thinking about challenges and not actually addressing them, they're not going to be equipped when they graduate.”
The cohort committed to working on these projects from summer until December 2021, and they’ve collaborated with each other and local communities in a number of creative ways. Over the summer, Amy Ruiz Plaza ’23, pre-med biology major, partnered with the University of Minnesota and their mobile health clinic initiative to serve migrant workers. They provided access to the vaccine, blood pressure checks, A1C screenings, physicals, dental care, eye care, and more in both the Twin Cities and southern parts of Minnesota. They worked with nonprofits like Tri-Valley Opportunity Council and Black Nurses Rock, which were both included in Trusted Messenger, a documentary that highlights disparities in Black and Latinx communities regarding COVID-19 and the history behind distrust for vaccines.
In partnership with the United Cultures of Bethel group Voz Latinx, Ruiz Plaza showed Trusted Messenger during a film forum for the Bethel community to encourage thoughtful dialogue. As part of the event, she brought in medical professionals featured in the documentary as well as local entrepreneur Teto Wilson, who has been using his Minneapolis barber shop as a site for COVID-19 vaccinations and health education. “I wanted to bring in physicians and nurses that actually really know a lot about vaccines, how they work and about COVID-19, so that if people have questions, they can talk to them directly and have a conversation,” Ruiz Plaza says. The panel offered time for a Q&A after the film to engage in conversation right away.
Thanks to the IFYC grant, Ruiz Plaza can use this experience as she pursues her goals of going to medical school in hopes of studying and advocating for women’s health. As part of the Latinx community, Ruiz Plaza says she is always looking for ways to invest in her community and help others however she can. “I'm very passionate about trying to dismantle injustices, especially with women of color,” Ruiz Plaza says. “They're just not treated the same. They're not given the same respect and not taken seriously with their health, or if they have pain or anything. So, I want to help.”
Other students in the cohort have used their passions, talents, and connections to reach their communities as well. Art therapy major Maya Singer '22 developed a website to organically share information about the vaccine, including research and local vaccination sites, along with personal testimonies from people in the community themselves. This website requires consistent updating as location sites and hours may change according to availability.
Community health major Sarah Zalanga ’23 has started creating a podcast to share interviews with experts across a variety of fields as they explain information about the vaccine through the lens of their field. “The student is trying to bring together some of the science and some of the social pieces, including health equity and faith—and how all of those things interface in developing an appropriate COVID-19 response in communities,” Doan explains. Lizzy Carson ’22, nursing and reconciliation studies double major, has been designing and placing posters addressing misconceptions about COVID-19 in local coffee shops, which share the benefits of being vaccinated as members of a larger community and QR codes linking to local vaccination sites and openings.
Reconciliation studies major Avery Schlagel ’24 has focused her project on educating members of her personal community. She has begun to connect with leaders of her church to understand why people of faith may be hesitant to get the vaccine. She’s passionate about reshaping the vaccine narrative as something rooted in politics to the public health arena instead. As she wrestles with changing the narrative in her own circles, she’s attuned to how interpersonal dynamics influence attitudes about the vaccine—especially since people have had different personal experiences with COVID-19.
Schlagel is grateful to be supported by her professors throughout this project as she tries to connect with her church and encourage her friends and family to consider perspectives outside their own. “It's just always nice to have people in your corner, especially when they’re people who are in a position of authority wanting to walk alongside you and support you,” Schlagel says. “They're not just like: ‘Well, I'm your professor, you need to do what I say.’ But instead they ask: ‘What do you need? Please tell us.’ That's been really empowering as well.”
For both Doan and Brekke, this experience has been life-giving as they support students addressing this relevant issue affecting countries across the world. “I’m excited to cheer students on as they lean into their own gifts and passions and to help provide opportunities for them to develop those skills,” says Doan.
Brekke is excited to watch students grow in their faith as members of a Christian community. “The students’ work is both about using the science and living out of faith,” he says. “These projects are growing their faith commitments. As they do this work, they’re realizing, ‘Whoa, these community connections are really, really important.’ And they see that at work and realize that it is encouraging and life-giving.”