Summer Projects Allow Students to Combat COVID-19, Racial Injustice

When COVID-19 derailed their summer plans, these Tufts students were awarded grant funding from Tisch College for projects to help their communities instead
“I think it has been a hugely meaningful experience that has brought students closer to work they’re passionate about in their home communities,” said Alex Lein, A21. Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
“I think it has been a hugely meaningful experience that has brought students closer to work they’re passionate about in their home communities,” said Alex Lein, A21. Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
November 23, 2020

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It was February 2020, and Alex Lein, A21, thought he knew how he would be spending the summer.

An interdisciplinary student crafting his own major from education, sociology, and psychology courses, Lein is working toward a career in higher ed and education reform. “I’m interested in creating new educational experiences and exploring new ideas for education systems better suited for the time we’re living in,” Lein said.

He also had just returned from a half semester in Vietnam and Morocco, where he studied the global impact of climate change, and he hoped to keep exploring new horizons. “I had planned to help out at a nonprofit in a city where I hadn’t been, maybe on the West Coast,” he said.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly Lein found himself quarantined at home, his plans replaced with a question mark—and a growing sense of alarm about how the pandemic was affecting vulnerable people. “I recognized the inequities COVID was bringing to light,” Lein said. He saw that his fellow students were in the same boat: “A lot of them were home looking for opportunities for the summer, wanting to take action in some form to help their communities.”

As the president of Tufts’ Leonard Carmichael Society, which is the university’s largest student-run organization and aims to redefine and expand on what service and engagement mean at Tufts, Lein knows a thing or two about taking action to help others. “Civic engagement has been a strong part of my Tufts experience, and I think it should be a defining element of a Tufts education for all students,” Lein said. “We have a unique cohort of students who are oriented that way, and I can think of few better causes to support than the ones students are really familiar and close with.”

Within weeks of students being sent home in March, Lein called the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and proposed a new summer grant program for students doing COVID-related work that engages their home communities. Funds could be used however students wanted, including for living stipends and personal expenses—an unusual level of flexibility, which Lein emphasized as a defining element of the program—and priority would be given to projects serving under-supported and under-represented populations.

Tisch College swiftly established the program and asked Lein to run it. He spent months sifting through the hundreds of applications that came in, selecting 77 projects serving communities from Medford, Massachusetts, to Januba, Brazil, and connecting 94 students with the resources and guidance they needed to complete the work. Initiatives ranged from online platforms that enable research into young adults’ mental health amid the pandemic, to virtual oral health games for students at a Dorchester public school, to COVID-19 public health resources for people in Ghana.

By the end of the summer, a 78th project had been completed: Lein’s own. Running the grant program, he was able to create educational experiences, explore new horizons, and be of service to others—just the kind of work he had been looking to do. “I tried to apply that energy directly to this program,” he said. The rewards have been immense—for himself and, he hopes, his fellow students. “I think it has been a hugely meaningful experience that has brought students closer to work they’re passionate about in their home communities, and to one another even while they’re so far apart,” he said.

Tisch College has granted additional funding for some students to continue their projects into the fall semester, and Lein hopes that similar funds will be established in the future. “One of the best ways Tufts and Tisch College can support students from afar is to empower them to do self-guided work that is important to them and give them free rein over how to do it—I hope we do more and more of this,” he said. “For me, this work has provided a bridge into what I hope to continue doing down the road; it has not only introduced me to some pretty amazing people projects, but also shown me how to better support, advocate, listen to, and learn from those around me.”

A More Just and Healthy Society

A community health major who fell in love with Brazil’s culture, language, and history through the Tufts 1+4 Bridge Year program, Rebecca Rose, A23, planned to gather data on health issues among the local Brazilian population this summer as part of community health professor Jennifer Allen’s Brazilian Women’s Health Study.

“Brazilian immigrants are one of the three main immigrant communities in Medford / Somerville, but there’s little academic understanding about what’s going on with them and how to improve their outcomes from a health perspective,” said Rose, who partnered with the Brazilian Women’s Group and the Somerville Office of Immigrant Affairs on this work.

When the pandemic broke out, Rose shifted her questions to focus on COVID-19, covering the community’s beliefs and attitudes about the virus, and their experiences with testing, treatment, work challenges, and social relief. “The virus has dramatically and disproportionately hit this community, which is vulnerable as a direct result of systemic problems,” Rose said. “Seeing the starkness of that disparity was really upsetting and frustrating—and was a really good fuel for this work.”

Rose had planned to couple her research with a food service job, but when that option vanished amid the pandemic, she wasn’t sure how she’d support herself. Then she got one of Tisch College’s COVID summer grants, which paid for her living expenses, allowed her to spend 20 hours per week administering the survey and conducting interviews, and brought in more than 60 percent more respondents than originally planned.

The survey and interviews found that many Brazilians are out of work due to COVID, but can’t access aid due to being undocumented, and that a large number intend to get the COVID vaccine. She is writing up her findings and distributing them to local Brazilian leaders, with whom she has formed strong partnerships. “When I look around, I don’t see a very just society, but I firmly believe it’s possible,” Rose said. “I’m trying to find ways to do my bit.”

Growing Grassroots Change

An interest in family history first led Ruth Block, A21, to study Black landowning practices as a Gerald Gill Fellow last year. “But when I dug deeper into farming and cattle ranching, I became really interested in Black food justice and agriculturally self-sustaining Black communities,” said Block, an English and Africana studies major.

Although Block wanted to go deeper into food justice, they couldn’t afford to do unpaid work this summer, so instead they lined up an internship with a publishing house and decided to find a job as a restaurant hostess. Then the pandemic struck, both plans fell through—and Tisch College announced its COVID summer grants.

Block soon received funding to intern with Groundwork Somerville, where they spent the summer doing crop planning at the nonprofit’s urban farm, coordinating volunteers at its Somerville school gardens, and working at its Mobile Farmers Market. “Rising food insecurity was a specific issue that arose from COVID that I felt I was able to tackle directly,” Block said. “It felt wonderful to be directly involved in the food access issue—to bring the gardens to fruition, to hold the produce in my hands, and to bring it to people.”

Block also taught students of color via Zoom to start their own home gardens and led an online essay contest for Black youths on food justice. “Following the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter this summer, I was thinking a lot about actively contributing to food justice efforts specifically in my community, on a grassroots scale,” said Block, who is now completing the publishing internship originally planned for the summer. “I would like to think the work I did at Groundwork did that. It felt like in small ways, I was chipping away at something larger.”

A Global Project

Zara Khan, M23, was looking forward to a summer doing global health research in Pakistan, where her family is from. When the project was canceled due to the pandemic, Khan was upset at first. Then she asked herself: “With my interest in global health, what can I do this summer that can be impactful for the pandemic as well?”

Khan turned to Navid Madani, founder of the Science and Health Education (SHE) Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Madani helped Khan formulate a Tisch grant proposal to study the pandemic’s impact on young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. “I wanted to focus on how to galvanize youths to be leaders in this problem and help governments mitigate the crisis,” Khan said.

Khan worked with the SHE Center to host a series of webinars on the pandemic’s effect on Middle Eastern youths, and another about its consequences for women in the MENA region. “It was a great learning experience, and I was able to interact with U.N. officials and people involved with the World Health Organization,” Khan said.

Khan also came across a study by John Hopkins and the World Health Organization predicting that the interruption in routine immunizations due to the pandemic would cause an additional 51,000 deaths among children under the age of 5 in the Middle East. “That was so alarming to me. I decided this was an area that needed to be addressed,” said Khan. She proceeded to do just that, overcoming language barriers and a lack of data to complete a literature review on immunizations in three Middle Eastern countries. “I hope people involved in governments in the MENA region are able to read this review and impact their policies to continue routine immunizations during this pandemic in an effort to decrease childhood mortality,” Khan said. 

Khan hopes to do a global health rotation somewhere in the Middle East as a 4th year student and to stay involved with the SHE Center after graduating. “I think we accomplished a lot, but a lot of work still needs to be done,” she said.

A Grounding Force in a Crisis

Stella Elwood, V22, and Alena Naimark, V23, found out around the same time that their summer plans at the Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic were off—both Elwood’s work interviewing economically disadvantaged clients, and Naimark’s telemedicine feasibility project.

“There was an initial moment of, oh my God, everything is ruined,” Elwood said. 

Then Cummings School clinical associate professor and co-section-head for Community Medicine, Emily McCobb, a mentor to both Elwood and Naimark, sat them down to talk about next steps. “She told us there was a lot of overlap in our projects,” Naimark said. “So we combined our forces.”

The resulting project: a study of veterinary telemedicine and how, to whom, and in what situations to offer it, with a particular focus on how the clinic closure affected underserved populations. With the help of Tisch College funding, Elwood and Naimark were able to offer free pet exam credits to the clients whom they surveyed and interviewed. “It was heartbreaking,” said Naimark. “There were people who really needed help and didn’t have the resources, information, or opportunity to get care.”

Elwood said she considers it her duty as a human being to prevent this kind of situation. “I think everyone deserves to have a pet,” she said. “Seeing how therapeutic pets can be and the grounding force they provide in a time of crisis has been really eye-opening to me.”

Elwood and Naimark summarized their findings at the National Veterinary Student Scholars Symposium and wrote research reports that they aim to publish in the future. They hope their work will pave the way for future telemedicine efforts and help the clinic apply for grants. Naimark said she sees this as the beginning of a movement toward more equity in veterinary care—one that she hopes to join herself, through working as a community veterinarian. “I feel most successful when those around me in my community are also succeeding,” Naimark said.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.