This spring, second-year Emma Hart coauthored an issue brief about the COVID-19 vaccine requirement considerations in higher education institutions with General Counsel Peter McDonough through her Sophomore Opportunities and Academic Resources (SOAR) internship at the American Council on Education’s Department of Government and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
As part of Oberlin’s three-semester plan for 2020-2021, second-year students participated in a monthlong winter term SOAR retreat and had the opportunity to pursue micro-internships or research projects during their spring semester, much like the juniors during the Junior Practicum program during the fall semester. The SOAR retreat included major planning workshops, panels, and guest speakers, while the Career Development Center matched students with parents, faculty, and alumni who sponsored micro-internships and research opportunities.
“People I knew were talking about things on the news, and it felt surprising to get to be a part of that,” says Hart, who was encouraged to “drive her experience” by her sponsor Steven Bloom ‘84, assistant vice president, government relations for the American Council on Education.
“They made it very clear that I could drive the experience and do as much or little as I wanted, and when I heard my sponsor [Steven Bloom] say that, I thought, ‘Well, I would rather do more,’” she adds.
Though she is not a politics major, Hart is interested in law school after Oberlin and considers the American Council in Education (ACE), a non-partisan lobbying agency, as a similar work environment to what her post-Oberlin life could look like.
“I was interested in lobbying and to an extent I still am,” Hart says. “Even being at Oberlin, there’s such an atmosphere of social justice that goes hand in hand with what people call politics.”
While she thought the internship was initially somewhat intimidating, Hart says that the welcoming atmosphere and friendly people made the experience worthwhile. Being able to tackle politics head-on boosted her confidence, and she remarks that the people there even thought she was a fourth-year due to the polished work she turned in.
“I was definitely intimidated because [McDonough] was also the general counsel at Princeton for at least a decade,” Hart explains. “But after meeting with him one-on-one, he was so friendly and welcoming. None of the people on the public affairs team ever acted like I was unprepared or like I was lacking in any type of knowledge. They really wanted it to be a learning experience for me.”
When explaining the issue brief, Hart describes it as “food for thought,” rather than direct legal advice to colleges and universities. Because some schools do not have the resources to have an attorney in-residence, they reach out to organizations such as ACE for their advice.
Through research, drafting, and revision, Hart and McDonough transformed the issue brief from just a vague idea into a distributable document that has now been promoted by organizations such as Politico and Inside Higher Ed.
Hart says that one of the greatest challenges was attempting to write about a subject that was still so new, uncertain, and constantly changing. In their research, they focused on CDC guidelines and employment law, which were changing regularly.
“I feel like in researching for a paper that you're going to write for a class—all the information is already out there and maybe even the exact idea that you're trying to communicate— but with [the brief], we [were] putting pieces of a puzzle together and trying to put them in one place to help advise people and institutions,” Hart states. “Peter [kept] sending me new things he was seeing… and it was important within the brief to cite that this was written in March of 2021, [because] it might not be relevant within two or three months.”
Another example of rapidly changing information was when Rutgers University announced on March 25 that it was making the vaccine mandatory for all students. Hart and McDonough could adjust their language and focus more on whether a college “should” require it.
Furthermore, Hart made sure to include notes that were important to her, such as adding a bullet point that some schools might choose not to require vaccines because “Marginalized groups and individuals may be distrustful of the vaccine due to a history of medical racism and discrimination.”
“[Under-represented] communities were an important piece that I wanted to add,” Hart says. “There has been a huge history of medical racism and I felt that was important to include in the brief because that to me is fair, more so than maybe people who don't believe that COVID-19 is real.”
As the issue brief begins to gain traction, Hart hopes that it will provide some clarity for schools, particularly for presidents of institutions.
“A large majority of ACE members are the presidents of of institutions, and I would like [the brief] to provide them some clarity, just in general as far as COVID-19 goes, because I think that this past year and a month now has been incredibly chaotic and has left a lot of questions unanswered for people and there's been a lot of confusion and fear,” Hart explains.
Outside of class, Hart is most passionate about co-leading Survivors of Sexual Harm and Allies (SOSHA), a nonchartered club at Oberlin. For April, or Consent Month/Sexual Harm Awareness Month, SOSHA is partnering with the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct (PRSM), and the Peer Support Center to offer a wide range of programming to raise awareness about sexual violence.
In particular, her interest in Title IX and justice for victims of sexual violence was also a significant factor in the internship she was matched with.
“It’s so ingrained in my identity and informs all of my interests and what led me to ACE,” she says.
Besides law school, Hart is newly motivated to potentially work in D.C. in a lobbying group or even run for office someday.
“That would be a space where hopefully those changes could get made,” she says.
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