Last September, Manuel Espinoza, PhD, associate professor in the School of Education & Human Development, was at a routine doctor’s appointment at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. In a follow-up email, he received an invitation to participate in a Moderna vaccine trial. He read through carefully, and thought, yes.
Why? Because he wants to see CU Denver’s heart and soul—its students, faculty, and staff—return to campus this fall. And, he believes in science. Working in academia, scientists aren’t just abstract concepts, he said. They are his colleagues who are doing critical research to help make the world a better and safer place.
So, Espinoza contacted the lead investigator on the trial, Dr. Thomas Campbell, who then personally called Espinoza to provide information about the process ahead and to answer any questions. Ten days later, Espinoza received his first dose of what would be either the Moderna vaccine or a placebo.
For the first time in a long time, he felt a sense of power.
“The pandemic made everyone feel very powerless on an everyday basis. So much was out of our hands,” Espinoza said. “To be of help, even a tiny bit of help, in developing a vaccine—I know I was one of thousands, but I was happy to be one of thousands.”
“A university can have a soul”
Espinoza’s been at CU Denver for 15 years. In addition to teaching, he directs the Right2Learn Dignity Lab, and, alongside his undergraduates, studies dignity in education.
He remembers life pre-pandemic. Hearing his colleague’s laugh in the office next door. His students collaborating in class and raising their hands to ask questions. The feeling of being on the Auraria campus in spring, when the flowers and trees come to life and the sun beats down on the neighboring city skyline. His students stopping by his office hours to talk about coursework or their personal lives. Going for ice cream with a group of students after class to simply talk about life.
“There is no replacement for the feeling of being in the same space as our students, fielding questions, getting a sense of when they are struggling or when they are excited about something,” Espinoza said. “A university can have a soul, and when we are together, in close proximity, we are able to build those bonds.”
When the world virtually shut down due to a global pandemic, CU Denver announced courses would be shifting to remote and online. Faculty members like Espinoza quickly shifted gears and adapted to virtual teaching and the new technology that came with it. Now, more than a year later, Espinoza can tell that the remote learning environment is wearing on his students, he said.
“I see them fatigued in general, and I worry for our young folks, especially the undergraduate students,” Espinoza said, adding, “This semester, I’ve been more of a counselor than a professor at times. I’ve had multiple calls on Zoom when my students say to me, ‘I can’t do it all.’ I tell them the only thing that matters is your life, we will figure the rest out.”
The way to do that, Espinoza said, is by being together in person again. And for that to happen, CU Denver community members must get vaccinated.
“Our university works on trust”
For the first five months of the Moderna trial, Espinoza made routine trips to the Anschutz Medical Campus to get blood drawn and answer questions about his progress. The nurses’ positive and playful spirits, even as they worked on the front lines of a devastating pandemic, amazed Espinoza.
Five months later, Espinoza received news that he was given the placebo vaccine. “It hurt my arm way more than the first dose,” he joked. “I was having all these thoughts about what was happening to my body, and it was nothing!”
Soon after, he received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine. The shot was quick and barely noticeable, he said, but it did leave his arm feeling tender for a few hours. Three weeks later, he received his second shot, which left him tired and flu-like for roughly 12 hours. “What they tell you, and it’s important to know, is that you’re not sick. It’s just your body building immunity. It’s a good thing,” Espinoza said.
The suffering was minimal compared to the impact on the health and wellbeing of his community: his mom, his brother, his uncle, his youngest daughter who he hasn’t seen in more than a year because she lives in California, his friends, his colleagues, and his beloved students. Now fully vaccinated, Espinoza walks around with more confidence and less anxiety, knowing that he did his part in helping to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m still very cautious because we aren’t at full vaccination rates, but it allows me to move around and see some people,” Espinoza said. “It allows me to enjoy the sunshine and sit at a patio at a restaurant and feel safe.”
Espinoza, who is still participating in the trial as researchers continue to study the effects of the vaccine, encourages all members of the CU Denver community to trust science and to get the vaccine.
“There’s reasons to trust, and there’s reasons to be cautious as well, but you can’t be dismissive of the science when it’s already showing itself to be working,” Espinoza said. “All of this works on trust. Science works on trust. Our university works on trust.”