St. Olaf College | News

Student View: Promoting COVID vaccinations with Interfaith Youth Core

Nursing major Tenzing Sakya ‘22 is back on campus for fall 2021 — the start of her senior year.

In this Student View column, senior nursing major and family studies concentrator Tenzing Sakya ‘22 shares her interest in getting the campus community vaccinated against COVID-19 — she describes her experience with joining a cohort of students through the Interfaith Youth Core to do just that.


About a year and a half ago, St. Olaf students were sent home on an extended spring break due to the surging COVID-19 pandemic. Well, that “spring break” turned into a semester spent at home and online.

Since then, many things have happened: a summer spent in lockdown, a new academic year that began with a campus-wide quarantine in your dorm rooms, face mask policies, mini-COVID outbreaks on campus, new vaccines, new variants, and, lastly, a chance to do it all again this fall.

It’s been a very long year and a half — but that day in March 2020 when we got sent home seems like it was just yesterday.

Mike Guzman ’22, Jossy Avila ’22, Sam Pallo ’22, Tenzing Sakya ’22, and Luis Mendez ’22 on a road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. “These were the students that got me through COVID,” Sakya says. “We were each other’s support system through the ups and downs of the past year and a half.”

As someone who loves to socialize and be around my friends, spending half of my sophomore year at home hit me pretty hard. It was a relief to learn about the vaccine, and in January 2021, I got it the first chance I could.

Looking back, my decision to get the vaccine was the right choice. But at the time, I was extremely nervous. I felt like I was the guinea pig — being the first person in my family and the first of my friends to get vaccinated. I spent a good two weeks deliberating whether or not I wanted to take the shot. In the end, I chose to do it not only because I have a family member who is vulnerable to COVID, but also as a college student who really wanted things to go back to normal.

So when Associate Director of Wellness and Health Promotions at the Wellness Center Jenny Ortiz sent out an email saying there was an opportunity to promote vaccination with Interfaith Youth Core, I was automatically interested.

I had never really heard about Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) until this summer. Its concept and moto had confused me at first. We started this ambassador program by reading Interfaith Leadership: A Primer by Eboo Patel, the founder of IFYC. By reading this book and debriefing with other ambassadors, I came to really understand its goal: IFYC strives to use religion to build bridges within the next generation of leaders rather than have it be a dividing factor.

There are so many diverse and unique religions in the world. As beautiful as that is, it can quickly become something that creates conflict. IFYC wanted to work against that, and I used this ideology as I drafted different plans for this project.

The purpose of this ambassadorship with IFYC was to encourage people to get vaccinated and make it easier for them to access the vaccine as well. A cohort of St. Olaf students created their own unique projects to address this issue. We were essentially a team but each of us had our own project and plan to carry out. Every few weeks we would meet and update each other on our progress.

All projects among the St. Olaf cohort aimed to increase trust in the vaccine, improve access to it, and/or address any hesitancy towards it.

All projects among the St. Olaf cohort aimed to increase trust in the vaccine, improve access to it, and/or address any hesitancy towards it. Together with Ortiz, the IFYC supported the Ole cohort which included a group of eight students all from different backgrounds and experiences.

“The concept of ‘anti-vaxxers’ was not new to me, especially as a nursing student,” wrote Lucy Moe ‘22 in an op-ed for the StarTribune. Her project was to write this piece and share how hard it is to talk to people about the uncertainties they had or currently have surrounding the vaccine.

Nursing major and pre-med student Sol Castenada ‘24 focused on helping decrease COVID-19 vaccine uncertainties in communities of color. She spoke to families and individuals who had questions about the ingredients, symptoms, and efficacy of the vaccines. She also created flyers and gave presentations that were in both Spanish and English.

There are not many COVID-19 vaccine resources available for non-English speakers, so nursing major Gkao Mee Seng Xiong ‘23 specifically focused her project on reaching the Hmong community. She translated COVID-19 vaccine information into Hmong and created a three-part video series on YouTube which has been viewed dozens of times.

My own experience as an ambassador with IFYC has reflected the public’s relationship with COVID-19. Just like how the virus has thrown many curveballs, with circumstances always changing, this ambassadorship has done the same to me.

Tenzing Sakya ‘22 sitting on the steps of Archer House prior to the pandemic.

I first started my ambassadorship with IFYC having the idea, and written proposal, for a project that would help Oles get to and from vaccination appointments. As the vaccine became more available to non-high-risk groups, more students were getting vaccination appointments.

As great as that was, there was still a very common obstacle that was making getting vaccinated difficult: transportation. All too often I would see emails from students asking for rides and offering money out of their own pocket to pay for gas so that they could have someone drive them to get vaccinated. I saw this so often that I felt it had to be addressed.

Then came my own personal obstacle: by the time I was supposed to begin setting up this project, a transportation program had already been developed by the college. My original project proposal felt useless, but luckily, it was not the end for my project.

After talking with Dean of Students Rosalyn Eaton and explaining to her my connection to IFYC, we worked out a plan for me to change my project focus from vaccine transportation to vaccine education. The plan was for me to take over the St. Olaf College Instagram account and address vaccine hesitancy on campus by dispelling COVID myths, sharing Rice County data, and conducting a Q&A. I had literally hit a home run! I was so excited to be able to start my research and share my findings with the more than 12,700 students, alumni, families, and professors that followed the account. I was just about to set a date for my Instagram takeover when — yet again — my completion of the project was interrupted.

By mid-June, the college had already implemented a vaccine mandate for the fall and 83 percent of faculty and staff and 75 percent of students were already vaccinated.

By mid-June, the college had already implemented a vaccine mandate for the fall and 83 percent of faculty and staff and 75 percent of students were already vaccinated. By the end of August, the Pfizer vaccine has been approved by the FDA and 97 percent of students and 96.8 percent of employees have each received at least one dose of the vaccine.

While others in the cohort were wrapping up their projects, I basically had to start from scratch again. At this point, I questioned if I was even going to have a finished product to present. After deliberation with Ortiz, it was decided that I would write a Student View piece about my experience with this ambassadorship and highlight the work of other Oles in the program.

This was all while working as a microbiology supplemental instructor for the TRIO Student Support Services summer bridge program. So I guess even though going through the process of starting my project over three times while teaching was extremely stressful, I have all of it to thank for leading me to where I am now.

This project led me down a pathway that I never really pictured myself going down. My original idea of creating a vaccine transportation program was much less public compared to taking over the school’s Instagram account or writing a story for the school website. I remember one fear I had regarding publicly talking about COVID and the vaccine was what some of my fellow peers may think of me. I was nervous that my own friends might not like what I have to say. However, at the end of the day, I feel as though the vaccine has been good to us and I have strong faith that the rest of the Ole community believes — or will one day believe — this too.