NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — An assistant professor at Norfolk State University is researching vaccine hesitancy and health disparities in urban communities in hopes of better communication and future policy changes.
Dr. Sharon Alston works at the Ethel R. Strong School of Social Work and is a fellow in the Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Alston came to Norfolk State in 2017 and like higher education professionals across the country, experienced the challenges of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m a social worker and so when COVID happened, I didn’t look at it like it was a pandemic or experience for the world but how it impacted our students,” she said. “Students lost their jobs, their family and friends. I was compassionate and empathized what it was like for them to return to school online but to still be isolated from their support or family. Many didn’t have resources.”
Alston says the university quickly got to work to get students what they needed such as computers, web cameras, and virtual assistance.
Fast forward nearly a year and a half later, Alston and her students are back on campus learning together.
“It’s been trial and error in a good way. The world is not stopping. I always tell our kids life does not stop for us, so how do we navigate through this process?” she said.
Alston loves her students and says her students have been responsive to the rules and protocols in place on campus.
“They’re appreciative of the candid conversations of their role in this process, their role in protecting the academic community, their peers. I’m proud of them,” she said.
While she’s noticed how receptive students on campus are to getting the vaccine and following guidelines, Alston says it’s not like that everywhere.
It’s why she’s using her fellowship to look into inner-city health disparities and vaccine hesitancy here in Norfolk and her hometown, New York City.
“My premise is we need to ask ‘Why?’ Why are people becoming hesitant to take the vaccination?” said Alston. “Until we ask the community and hear community voices, that’s where we’re really going to get info for why this is a challenge for some and not for others.”
This month, Alston will be traveling to New York City for data collection and will also return to Norfolk to continue her research.
Alston says she received the grant a year ago for the project and is looking for more funding to conduct a larger sample size.
She hopes her work will make a difference in the years to come whether it’s getting education out in different ways, lifting the voices of those impacted by these health disparities higher, or establishing better communication between these communities and those who set guidelines.
“What I’m hoping my research does is inform policymakers, but we develop policies that reflect the needs and voices of those in our community,” she said.