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There are countless young people who want to join what President Biden keeps calling the war against the virus. Many feel more like shell-shocked members of the walking wounded rather than warriors in the fight.

After all, this has been the mother of all frustrating years. Plans have been foiled one way or another. Maybe your school was remote, and you couldn’t live on campus. Maybe your college was in session, but you couldn’t go to parties or play your favorite intramural sport. For sure your plans for the summer -- the internship you were hoping to land, the trip you were planning to take -- have been wrecked. Worse, one of your loved ones might have died from the virus or be a COVID long-hauler.

We should have a large-scale vaccine education ambassador initiative that young people can join.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dr. Fatima C. Stanford, director of diversity at the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Harvard University, related a story that has powerful implications for vaccine education in minority communities.

As part of her graduate program at Emory, she would go into African American neighborhoods across Atlanta to do community education on nutrition and wellness: “I would speak, and they're like, ‘That’s Fatima. She is great. She's one of us.’ I was bringing information from Emory University, but I was one of their own. That information was received much better than from someone that had no ties to the community.”

She drew a broader lesson from this experience: students can serve as health education ambassadors within their own home communities. If they are given the right training and information, they can be trusted messengers of accurate and culturally sensitive information to vaccine-hesitant communities.

This is something those of us in higher education and philanthropy can do, and we should not wait a moment before getting started. Summer 2021 is shaping up to be one of the most critical periods in American public health in a century. God willing, the problems of vaccine availability and rollout will have been solved. Anyone who wants a shot should be able to walk into their local pharmacy to get one.

The challenge will be those who don’t want a shot: vaccine-hesitant communities.

Enter college students and recent graduates. Why not train an army of them to be vaccine education ambassadors back in their home communities, in precisely the type of role that Dr. Stanford served in when she was doing community education in African American neighborhoods in Atlanta as a graduate student at Emory.

Here’s a sketch of how a program could work:

  • Ten thousand students and recent graduates are selected as vaccine education ambassadors. There is a special effort made to include students who are from communities that have been both especially hard hit by the virus and have shown hesitancy about getting the vaccine (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Republicans, evangelical Christians, people who live in rural areas);
  • The vaccine education ambassadors commit to completing a training program and making a certain number of presentations within their home community, at houses of worship, neighborhood centers, etc.;
  • The training entails not just basic information about the virus and the vaccine, but also culturally specific information for particular communities (for example, it might address questions regarding the halal status of the virus for Muslims, and whether stem cells were used for Catholics), and also approaches that have been shown to be highly pedagogically effective (more visuals, less text; lots of references to well-known people within the community who have received the vaccine and how they are living now).

The war against the virus is a war we can win -- and we should be preparing idealistic young people to join the fight.

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