How students used social media and memes to change a University of Michigan sexual health policy

A meme posted on U of M's health policy | Facebook

The University of Michigan has a long history of politically active movements, from the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the first-ever teach-in in 1965 and picket-sign style protests to fight segregation. 

But today, students have a new form of political creativity: memes, Twitter updates and Instagram stories. 

At the University of Michigan, a small group of student activists with a strong social media reach were able to change a university sexual health policy in less than a week. 

On Labor Day, the last day of summer break before classes started the next morning, an article by U of M’s newspaper, the Michigan Daily, started spreading on Facebook. 

The story warned students of a University Health Services (UHS) policy change that would no longer cover the costs of laboratory testing, including sexually transmitted infections (STI) tests. 

University Health Services, University of Michigan | Allison Donahue

The policy was quietly rolled out in July, and students only received an email that notified them of a billing change, but did not explicitly list the services it would affect. 

Students shared the story and voiced their concerns on Facebook and Twitter about how the policy would affect students who can’t afford health insurance or don’t feel comfortable with their parents seeing STI testing on their Explanation of Benefits. 

Catherine Nouhan, a U of M senior and the staff reporter who broke the news, said even she was surprised when she saw the attention it was getting on social media. 

However, she was not surprised by the power of the internet, because even the Michigan Daily got the tip through a Reddit thread.

Hoai An Pham, a U of M alum | Allison Donahue

“Quickly people turned to making memes,” Nouhan said. “It was either very informational or satirizing.”

To Hoai-An Pham, a recent U of M graduate and community organizer, any dialogue is a good starting place to make change. 

“On Twitter, there was a lot of dialogue. I think having it in that humorous way created an environment where people were able to talk about it more comfortably,” Pham said. “But I think a lot of the barriers to organizing is that we don’t create spaces where people have the language to talk about the challenges they are facing.”

Online organizing

After seeing “anger and worry” on social media, Pham created a collaborative Google document where she drafted an email that could be customized for each individual and sent to university President Mark Schlissel, Executive Director of University Health Services Dr. Robert Ernst and CEO of Michigan Medicine Marschall Runge. 

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel | Wikimedia Commons

In the document, people were able to add more email templates to make it relevant for the sender, such as a current student, alumni, faculty member or a sexual assault survivor. 

After sharing the document on social media, it quickly shifted into something much more than a simple email template.

It really became more of an information guide,” Pham said, “which I think became a really powerful, digital organizing tool.”

The document includes a list of free and low-charge sexual health resources around Ann Arbor and a statement of concern about the marginalized students who would have faced the greatest impact by limiting STI testing. 

The statement said this policy “will drastically limit access to students who don’t have insurance, and to students who cannot have STI testing billed to their parents’ insurance for them to see.” 

lgbt
Michigan Pride, June 15, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

The statement also said the issue is “a socioeconomic justice issue, a queer issue, and a racial justice issue” as these groups are historically overlooked in health care.

The dichotomy of formal letters to university leaders and edited pictures of U of M T-shirts that read “number one public university in student chlamydia” seemed to work for the students. 

A popular Facebook page, UMich Memes for Wolverteens, played an unexpected role in the movement.

The page is a private group of 22,000 students and alumni members who share U of M-specific memes and jokes. As word got around about the UHS policy change, students got creative with Photoshop and began storming the Facebook page with STI-related memes.

A meme posted on U of M’s health policy | Facebook

“People are super-talented at editing, so it was getting a lot of attention,” Pham said. “People were in the comments like, ‘This is so funny, but seriously, this is going to be a really big problem for me,’ so it became a form of discussion.”

Student protest

Facebook groups like UMich Memes for Wolverteens and the Class of 2020 group, helped another student create a community and continue to move the dialogue further. 

Olivia Brickley, U of M senior, founder of University of Michigan Students for Equitable Health Care | Allison Donahue

Olivia Brickley, a senior majoring in sociology, said after she saw the conversations happening around social media, she felt called to post and invite others to organize with her.

“I just posted and said, ‘Does anyone want to help organize a protest of sorts? I know that everyone is kinda mad about this, DM me,’” Brickley recalled. 

From there, University of Michigan Students for Equitable Health Care (UMSEHC) was formed through Facebook comment threads and direct messages. Brickley said the group was composed of about 14 individuals, all with different roles at the university — students, alumni and a faculty member. 

“Facebook reaches so many people, and even if people don’t comment or like the post, maybe they’re afraid of repercussions it may have, you find a community online,” said Brickley. 

University Health Services, University of Michigan | Allison Donahue

Brickley and Pham had never met in person, but now were working together on the same goal to restore STI testing coverage on campus. 

“I think that relational organizing and building community through organizing is a big part of why all of this was so successful,” said Pham. 

Together, the group drafted the language for a petition that asked supporters to “stand up for Michigan students and join our demand that STI screenings be immediately reinstated in UHS coverage.”

Supporters of the petition were able to add their reasons for signing, which became another forum for dialogue.

Jeff Sorensen, a staff member at the university, was one of the advocates of the movement. He worked to support the students who organized and spread the petition.  

“It was the students that made this happen,” Sorensen said in an email to the Advance. “I’m really proud of the work they put in to stand up for themselves and the health of their peers.”

Updated: University of Michigan backtracks on STI test coverage

Declaring victory

In just three days, the petition reached 5,183 signatures.  

On the evening of Sept. 6, the university rolled back the policy and announced STI testing will continue to be a free service at UHS.

University Health Services, University of Michigan | Allison Donahue

UMSEHC posted on the petition’s page, “WE WON. STI tests are now covered under UHS for all students. An email will be sent to all UMich students shortly. Thank you all for making this happen. Power to the people!”

What followed is something that many community organizers dream of: a retraction letter from the powerful institution they had been working against.

We’ve heard your concerns about confidentiality and cost associated with testing for sexually transmitted infections and the worry that these concerns may result in barriers for some students seeking important preventive health-care services at UHS,” wrote Ernst and Vice President for Student Life, E. Royster Harper, in an email to all U of M students on Sept. 6. 

“You have helped us understand just how important it is to maintain confidentiality in this process all the way through how those tests are paid for,” the letter continued. “We want to personally thank the many students who have helped us understand just how important this topic is. We’ve heard you and we are changing our billing process because of the concerns you have raised directly with us, the UHS staff and other campus leaders.”

The fight ahead

This victory, which came much quicker than many of the organizers had expected, has shifted many of the students’ perspectives on what it means to create social change. 

Brickley is happy that their voices were heard, but she still believes there is work to do. 

Although UMSECH was formed around a singular issue, the group has plans to continue and work to bring more equity to health care on campus and in the community.

Brickley says the organization is working to create a mission statement now that things have calmed down after the policy reversal. UMSEHC is drafting plans to coordinate with other student organizations who work with public health, politics and social activism. Members also are brainstorming focus groups and support groups for students with STIs, so they have not only have informational resources, but are able to form a community. 

Because the group formed under the pressure of creating immediate policy change, they weren’t able to become a legitimate student organization through U of M Student Life, which is another item on the UMSEHC’s to-do list. 

Catherine Nouhan said breaking news like the UHS policy change is one of the main purposes of the student newspaper, but it was a good reminder of the Michigan Daily’s watchdog role for the university. 

“The departments know we are keeping tabs on what they are doing and we will report on it,” she said. “This was just a reminder that we are a student organization and we are writing for the students.”

After breaking the story and seeing the change students were able to create with the information, Nouhan said her passion for journalism has been reinvigorated. 

As for Pham, who now works as a community organizer for Planned Parenthood and develops and implements training for medical professionals about implicit racial bias, she has much higher expectations for the UHS and the university. 

“I am really hoping that UHS will take this as a check. Hopefully, they will consult with students more and look internally at their own policies,” she said. “I think the university needs to do a lot better with realizing their power and realizing how they may or may not be contributing to harmful power structures if they’re going unchecked.”

Tweeting, posting gifs or creating memes might not be the historical strikes and rallies of U of M’s 1960s protest movement, but Pham says this form of community organizing and dialogue has an important role in activism at the university today.

“The U of M community in general, as you can see with the memes pages, was sort of rallying around this and doing it together,” she said. “It’s a great reminder of what we can accomplish when we understand what is at stake and are invested, and that’s a powerful reminder.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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