Nine Wartburg College students are spending their summer educating others about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine as a way to increase vaccination rates in their home communities.  

The ambassador program was funded by the Interfaith Youth Core to address vaccine hesitancy concerns across the country. The Wartburg students are among about 2,000 students from 117 colleges nationwide participating in the program. Caryn Riswold, McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission, is leading the group.  

In the spring, the ambassadors participated in an intense five-hour training session that focused on community organization, active listening skills and COVID-19 vaccine education, including misconceptions about the vaccine. Students were then tasked with connecting with leaders in their community, oftentimes at churches and schools, to learn about concerns and challenges in the area and explore new opportunities for implementing outreach projects.  

“Very early on our students came face-to-face with the joys and challenges of talking to people about the vaccine,” Riswold said. “The joy is being part of the solution. It’s a great way to take back some of the control that people felt they lost over the last year. But the challenge was coming face-to-face with those who cited misinformation and conspiracy theories as their reason for not getting vaccinated.”  

The first call sophomore Rachel Gavin, a public health major, made was to her local health department in south-central Iowa. Jodene DeVault, a public health administrator with the Warren County Health Department, was happy to talk with Gavin and even offered to partner with her on a project that would use health department data to show who in the county was vaccinated and which areas needed more attention.  

“They didn’t have the resources to look into the data that they had, so I was able to organize the information by ZIP code and age to see where additional education and possibly clinics were needed in the county,” Gavin said. “It was no shock to see that the older generations were more likely to be vaccinated than younger people. We are right by Des Moines, but the more rural our county got, the fewer people were vaccinated.”  

As of July 29, about 49 percent of the Warren County population was fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 3 percent had received at least one dose of a two-dose series, but it is not known if those individuals intend to get the second dose.  

Sophomore biology major Pedro Martinez spent part of the summer in his hometown of Belmond, where he connected with his high school principal and local clergy to discuss vaccine efforts. Though he was met with vaccine resistance in many areas, Martinez said he still considered the summer a success because he was able to have important dialogues with influential people.  

“The conversations I had usually centered on two themes. First was that a person didn’t need to be vaccinated because they were otherwise a healthy individual. The second was concern over the long-term effects of the vaccine,” Martinez said. “I may not have changed many minds, but being someone who is willing to engage with the community and keep people educated is a major win. At least they were interacting with someone instead of just trusting what their friends were saying online. If it wasn’t for this program, many of these people might not have been pushed to have these conversations.” 

Other Wartburg students participating in the Faith in the Vaccine Ambassdor program include:  

  • Ireland Knapper 
  • Conner Ambrosy 
  • Gabby Corday 
  • Amber Boettcher 
  • Jared McLey 

Though overseeing the project took time away from her other summer plans, Riswold said knowing that Wartburg would have these trained ambassadors on campus in the fall was worth it. The students are expected to continue to serve through October. Several of the Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors said they would pick up where Wartburg’s own Public Health Ambassadors left off in the spring, educating their peers about and encouraging them to get the vaccine.  

“We must equip more students to have thoughtful and difficult conversations so we can return to a normal sense of campus life,” she said. “This is part of the work that needs to be done and will put all of us in a better place in the future.”  


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