Students examine complex issue of vaccine equity, role of wealthy countries, in annual WAYS camp

September 3, 2021

WAYS campers standing in front of SamfordFor the 33rd consecutive year, the Auburn University College of Education hosted the World Affairs Youth Seminar (WAYS).  The seminar is the oldest educational outreach camp at Auburn University, and one of Auburn’s very few non-STEM related academic camps. The camp receives financial support from the Sunrise Rotary Club, which has been part of the program from the beginning.

For the first time ever, the camp was held virtually in 2020 because of the pandemic. In a touch of irony, the 2021 camp was held live in July of this year just before another wave of COVID swept over the nation, and particularly the South, as the campers focused on … you guessed it … what wealthy nations can do to address global vaccine inequity.

As it has since its beginning many years ago, WAYS has attracted high school students from across the country who come to Auburn to live on campus, enjoy the town and its surroundings, and engage in an intensive examination of critical, controversial issues challenging our world today.

In addition to classroom lectures and researching the issues, each student is assigned to represent a country, and the seminar concludes with a multi-day UN-style session where the issues are debated. Regardless of students’ personal views, they must learn their country’s position and represent these views in what often become passionate encounters.

The mid-week lessons in vaccine equity touched on many aspects of the complex issue of global inequity. There were sessions on the UN and Vaccine Distribution, Equity in Vaccine Distribution, and Doctors Without Borders and the Pandemic Response. Students also received and studied various documents and worksheets from sources such as National Public Radio, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the KFF.org COVID Vaccine Monitor. Afternoons are spent in library research related to the issues using solid academic sources.

Dr. Kam talking to WAYS campers in classroom on vaccine inequityAnother feature of the camp includes visits with subject matter specialists called Expert Time. One such lecturer was Dr. Fred Kam, director of the Auburn University Medical Clinic.

Dr. Kam told the students’ his fascinating personal history as a citizen of the world, and the winding road that led him from England to Auburn. He explained how he was in Miami at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and how that experience, plus the personal mentorship he received from Dr. Anthony Fauci, prepared him for the onset of COVID.

“On New Year’s Eve, 2019, I was in Napa Valley where my son is a sommelier,” he explained. “I noticed a small item in USA Today about a lab in Wuhan, China, and immediately sent an email to Auburn asking our international program to identify our on-campus students from Wuhan. I also asked our clinical nurse to order as many N-95 masks and other protective equipment as we could get our hands on. I just had a hunch, and had already stockpiled a lot of PPE. As a result of this and other factors we never had to close down our clinic here on campus.”

Kam knew before Spring Break that the university would need to go to remote learning and recalled all of our students studying abroad. As questions began rolling in from the fascinated but deeply engaged WAYS students, Kam explained that the virus’s mission is to find infect the uninfected where it can then mutate, which at that time it he said it had already done more than 400 times.

As he explained that the pandemic was still raging in parts of the world, Dr. Kam stated that the vaccines were highly effective but that the battle had not yet been won here at home. As time revealed, this was uncannily accurate as we are in many places as badly affected by the virus now as we have ever been. He said that, even as infection rates had recently begun rising in all 50 states, it was still the “wild, wild west of medicine” in relation to the virus. He also explained to the students how authoritarian governments, such as China’s, was better able to order lockdowns, and how some regions were better prepared for the virus than others. In summary, he said, “Everything affects everything.”

Although Dr. Kam could have talked and answered questions for the rest of the day, it was time for the students to engage in more lectures and exercises from Social Science Education students Logan Cook, Ni’Yai Davis, and Sam Womack.

The students explored the difference in equality and equity, examined different sources for their reliability and accuracy, and studied complicated issues such as Vaccine Apartheid. They discussed the role of politics v. partisanship in vaccine distribution, as well as grounding themselves in the positions owned by the countries they represented in the Model UN. All of this came together as they worked to hammer out resolutions to address the crisis of vaccine inequity.

And this was just one morning’s work.

Jesus Tirado, a professor of Social Science Education here at Auburn, was the camp’s director.

WAYS camper writing on white board the different ways countries can combat vaccine inequities“It was encouraging to see students embrace complex topics and understand how nations across the globe are working and struggling to take on these challenges,” Tirado said. “Their energy, effort, intelligence, and empathy made me feel hopeful for the future. It also reminded me that students should be challenged by complex questions in the classroom. I know our Auburn students who helped lead the exercises walked away with a stronger understanding of how students can take on complex content and intellectual challenges, one of the many things we try to teach our students here in the Social Science Education program at Auburn.”

“We live in interesting times and one that demands intelligence to grasp complexity, the ability to research and discern, and an inclination to listen and collaborate. Our campers brought these skills to bear on the issues that we tackled. Whether it was with our speakers, the Auburn students, or each other, they listened first and worked together second, and debated and discussed how to resolve these tough issues. I am extremely proud of what we accomplished and I can’t wait to see what next year’s group does.”

As he has done for the past several years, Social Science Education doctoral student Nick Phillips led the UN Sessions and assisted Dr. Tirado with the camp.

“The 2021 Model UN WAYS camp was a great week with 16 high school students engaging in discussion on important global issues,” Phillips said. “This year’s camp explored the Covid-19 crisis from two angles, vaccine distribution and equity. Students also learned about the refugee crisis in Myanmar both from a historical perspective and through the events of today. Students had the opportunity to listen to experts in the field who have worked directly and indirectly on these issues. Students were able to ask insightful questions of these experts to better understand the issue before taking on the role of their assigned nation in the 3-hour Model UN debate in the afternoon. Having students receive a lesson from pre-service teachers in the morning in addition to listening to experts in the field supplemented their knowledge of the topic and allowed for a robust discussion of the issues.”

“As a person who facilitates the student teachers and campers, it is inspiring to see the students become fully engaged and to witness their ability to take the perspective of an assigned country for a week. While difficult, students tend to embrace the opportunity regardless of the significance the issue plays in their country. Students come from all over the U.S. to attend this weeklong camp in Auburn, with the expectation that they will leave knowing more about the UN and the world in which we live. Social studies education often struggles to incorporate global citizenship into the curriculum when standards tend to focus on the United States. However, the WAYS camp is one example of Social Studies education helping students better understand the global world we live in.”