I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Christian-college students aim to win over their vaccine-hesitant classmates and communities.

Good news: Public wariness of Covid-19 vaccines is dropping. But a new survey shows that political leanings, education, and age remain key dividing factors in attitudes toward the vaccine. Republicans, people with less formal education, and younger adults are more hesitant or outright resistant than others. Religion is a dividing point as well. Hispanic Protestants and white evangelical Protestants remain the religious groups least likely to take the vaccine.

With colleges continuing to wrestle internally and externally over whether and how to mandate the jab, I’m energized to share insights and stories from several of the 1,000-plus students on 110 campuses taking part in a new effort to turn the tide. The students are part of a new Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors program — drawn mostly from HBCUs and Christian colleges — and they’re developing educational programs and clinics to encourage their classmates and surrounding communities to get vaccinated.

No, this isn’t the sort of “educational innovation” this newsletter typically covers, but it’s hard to imagine a more timely project for the moment we’re living in. And just hearing the empathy, compassion, and maturity of these students — even as they recognize how their efforts might put stress on some of their campus relationships — is, frankly, inspiring. Many of them come from communities, campuses, and families where they regularly encounter vaccine resisters. But as one student, the Christian-ministry major Ben Slater of Mount Vernon Nazarene University, in Ohio, said to me: “The cause of vaccinations is too important not to have these conversations.”

The $5-million ambassadors project was conceived by Interfaith Youth Core in collaboration with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Students who participate receive ongoing training in some of the medical basics of the vaccine, and techniques for “deep listening.” (Another sign of the times: The training also includes ways to respond if disputes get too heated, or even turn physical.)

Going into conversations with an open mind and respect for others’ concerns — “not by trying to be right” — was one of the key lessons, Megan Moraghan, a Mount Vernon sophomore told me. Moraghan is a nursing major who spent much of last year as a nurse’s aide treating Covid-19 patients and seeing some of them die. Now that we’re in a stage of the pandemic that seems preventable, how does someone like her actually summon that empathy? “It’s something I’m working on,” said Moraghan, whose grandfather, father, uncle, and brother are all Assemblies of God ministers. “I don’t fear science, but I have other things I have fears about.”

Many of the vaccine-outreach efforts are community focused — Bethel University ambassadors developed a bilingual mobile clinic to bring vaccines to migrant workers near the Indiana college; those at Lenoir-Rhyne University, in North Carolina, hosted clinics at a local Roman Catholic church and a nearby food-distribution site.

But I’m especially intrigued by the college-oriented projects, in part for how they reflect the divisive climate on many campuses right now, and in part for how they reflect the findings from surveys conducted by IFYC and the Public Religion Research Institute.

The surveys, conducted in March and again in June, showed that faith-based approaches — like using religious leaders as messengers, and faith-based appeals based on loving your neighbor — had already swayed some vaccine-hesitant religious people. Several of the students plan to use similar approaches in their campus work. Slater, for example, said he’d already found verses in the New Testament, such as I Corinthians 6:19, about the stewardship of the body, which he hoped would resonate with his classmates in Ohio. “The vaccine is primarily to protect the community as a whole,” he said. “Most people on Mount Vernon’s campus have grown up with these concepts.” Slater, a sophomore, hopes the experiences of meeting fellow students “where they are” will help him become a better minister when that time comes.

In talking to these students, I was also struck by their sensitivity to the obstacles they’re confronting. Ambassadors at George Fox University, in Oregon, are planning a vaccine clinic next month, even though campus surveys suggest that as many as 80 percent of students are already vaxxed. Jonah Clotfelter, a junior majoring in communications, told me he doesn’t know how many more vaccine-resistant students the clinic might attract, judging by the many “difficult and super frustrating” conversations he’s already had this summer while at home in Kansas. (To give you a sense of what students like Clotfelter could be up against, the first survey, conducted by IFYC and PPRI in March, includes some disturbing findings on the influence of right-wing media outlets and QAnon-conspiracy spreaders on vaccine attitudes.)

To sway the resistors is to ask them to give up something that’s been part of their “social identity” for a year, he explained, “and to disagree with family members and other friends who they’ve found safety with” for their stance. Still, he’s committed to the work of building trust, “not arguments.” And in the end he hopes the conversations will carry the day. A lot of people “care about their friends and their families” he said. “The example of Jesus is perfect for that.”

Vaccine rates at Baylor University and its hometown of Waco, Tex., are reportedly a lot lower than in Oregon, and it was only with the rise of the Delta variant that the ambassadors were even authorized by the university to use the institution’s name in messages that encourage vaccination. Now they’re revving up their efforts with what Diana Gillespie, a medical-humanities major, calls “outreach that college students will pay attention to.” That includes TikToks, an Instagram feed called “Faith In the Vaccine,” and discussions on the university’s “Good Neighbear" podcast. Gillespie, a sophomore from Mississippi, said she’s taking inspiration from Doctors Without Borders, which often uses video to highlight the importance of its work in developing countries. “It works for them.” she said. “I never thought we’d have to do that here.”

The Baylor ambassadors plan three vaccine clinics for the fall, but Gillespie expects they will be a hard sell, not just because of vaccine hesitancy but because students will be preoccupied with other options on sign-up days: ”We’ll give you a vaccine that might make you sick for a day, but over there is a sorority where you can get snow cones.”

Still, she and her fellow ambassadors are committed to the cause — even as they brace for the backlash they expect will come. “Our faith has caused us to do this, but some people think this is not what God would have wanted us to do,” said Gillespie. And in the face of that, she’s hoping for the fortitude to respond with honesty and without judgment. “It’s a combination of empathy and science,” she said.

For those of us veering toward the blaming-and-shaming camp, there’s a lot to admire in that.

Join me on Thursday for a virtual forum on opening the doors of cutting-edge fields to more students.

Unfamiliarity with the opportunities, unwelcome culture in the disciplines, and inadequate academic prep are some of the reasons too many students miss out on the growing opportunities in cutting-edge fields. I’ll be exploring how colleges can overcome these barriers — especially for historically underrepresented students — with an expert panel: Gilda A. Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering (and president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science); Sunita V. Cooke, president of MiraCosta Community College District; Sue Harnett, founder and president of Rewriting the Code; and Robbyn Wacker, president of St. Cloud State University. Sign up here to pose questions and watch live on Thursday, August 12, at 2 p.m. Eastern time, or later on demand.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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