LSU Eunice Students Stage Debate on Vaccinations with “Astonishing” Outcomes, Change Opinions

The LSU Eunice chapter of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) learned more than they expected by organizing a debate about vaccinations last year—a timely topic in the context of COVID-19. That effort has now brought the chapter to the attention of 1,300 chapters world-wide, and multiple awards.



Flyer for the debate

The poster for the debate on vaccinations organized by the LSU Eunice chapter of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) last fall.


When a crowd streamed into the Health Technology Auditorium last November, the PTK chapter had questions for them. If they were parents, did they support vaccinations for their own kids? And should vaccinations be mandatory for children to attend school? Then the debate began on stage where the LSU Eunice speech and debate team, divided into two groups, presented every argument to support or oppose vaccinations based on PTK members’ extensive research. Afterwards, the chapter had more questions for the attendees. Now, how did they feel about their previous answers? Had their opinions changed?
“I was astonished,” said Ali Christopherson, PTK vice president who graduated from LSU with a bachelor’s in anthropology and sociology in 2017, came up with the idea of hosting a debate, and now will be going into her senior year of the LSU Eunice radiologic technology program. “We were hoping to change people’s opinions on this topic and sway them to see how important it is to vaccinate. It’s not like we expected a big change from when they came in to when they walked out, but we expected a change, and we did see a change, but not at all what we were expecting.”
While about half of the attendees had answered yes or “strongly support” to the first two questions walking in, only about a third still felt that way after the debate.
“More people walked out saying, ‘Actually, now I’m not really sure…,’” she recalled. “The debate became not about whether vaccines are good, but whether schools and public places should require people to be vaccinated, and that really changed a lot of minds. People were saying, ‘Vaccines are good, but I don’t want anyone forcing them on me.’ That’s what really started to sway people, that it shouldn’t be forced. We didn’t expect the live debate to take this turn, and that was the most surprising part, and how people responded.”


“If you’re versed in the science of vaccines, you think you’re going to sit down with someone and convince them. And you think having an objective debate on stage where all the facts are laid out, clearly you’ll educate some people and they will be enlightened.”—Kyle Smith

PTK is the world’s largest academic honor society with over three million members who have at least a 3.5 GPA and attend two-year colleges and academic programs—mostly state and community colleges. Last month, PTK hosted their annual international convention, called the Catalyst, virtually. The LSU Eunice chapter received three awards, including Top 100 Most Distinguished Chapters, Top 50 Honors in Action Projects, and Top 3 Honors in Action Projects in Theme 9: System Beliefs.
The Eunice chapter has 249 active members. They settled on their Honors in Action project, “Vaccinations Debate: A Discussion on the Impacts of Vaccine Hesitancy on Global Health” after coming across misinformation on social media about vaccines and wondering what they could do about it. Vaccine hesitancy was identified as a top ten global health risk by the World Health Organization in 2019, and the chapter’s research showed that between 2000 and 2015, the number of parents with “concerns about vaccines” increased from 19 to 50 percent.
“This was something we all felt passionate about,” said Christopherson. “We were all really fascinated by the social media aspect of the anti-vaccination movement, but when it came to action, we weren’t sure what to do.”
“The debate was an actionable thing,” added LSU Eunice Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Kyle Smith who has been encouraging the chapter to become more active. “With a debate, PTK could do a pre-test and a post-test and actually measure the direct impact on people’s opinions.”
But after the post-test, Smith was as surprised as anyone else.
“If you’re versed in the science of vaccines, you think you’re going to sit down with someone and convince them,” he continued. “And you think having an objective debate on stage where all the facts are laid out, clearly you’ll educate some people and they will be enlightened. But this goes to show that science just doesn’t always matter as much as it should. I definitely learned more about vaccine hesitancy than I thought I would. It’s really eye-opening, because it seemed like a no-brainer.”
Once the debate became about freedom and personal choice, it was as if the scientific reasons to vaccinate didn’t matter, Christopherson recalled.
“I’d be curious to know if we’d had a different outcome if we’d had true experts and doctors up on stage instead of the speech and debate team, although they did an excellent job,” she said. “That would just have been interesting to see.”
Christopherson, of course, did not expect how the current coronavirus pandemic would make their Honors in Action project even more relevant. There is no vaccine for COVID-19, but based on what the chapter learned from their research and hosting the debate, she now wonders what would happen if there was one available.
“Would people get it? Would they not get it? Would the government and school systems require people to get it in order to go places? I really don’t know,” she said. “We’re seeing, even now, how some are reacting to being told what they can and cannot do. People are saying, ‘The government doesn’t have the right to tell me what to do with my body.’ And yet, we see how serious this virus is. It’s just that their beliefs are so set that they don’t want somebody who knows more about this topic than they do to tell them how they should handle it.”
Smith agrees.
“When this pandemic happened, I thought, ‘Man, people are really going to drop this whole anti-vaccination thing—their eyes are going to open and they’re going to realize how important vaccines are,’” he said. “But now, I think it’s going to be worse. This global pandemic has really shone a light on the politics of this thing. And at this point, I’m not excited to see, if and when a vaccine is developed, how many people will choose to not take it. I thought we’d see things change in the opposite direction, but that has not been the case.” 



Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development