The calls and text messages arrive directly to Michyah Thomas’s iPhone.
They come from other students at Hampton University in need of the morning-after pill or in search of a ride to a health center or a hand to hold. They reach Thomas, a 21-year-old at Hampton, through a hotline she and another student, Alexandria Brown, created.
Each time, the pair figures out a way to get students what they need, delivering the emergency contraception themselves or calling on a group of about a dozen volunteers to help with transportation.
Providing round-the-clock access to the morning-after pill has surfaced as a cause on campuses throughout the country. George Mason University in Virginia and colleges and universities in California and Pennsylvania have installed vending machines that dispense the contraceptive pill called Plan B, or a generic version that can be purchased over the counter in stores.
Thomas has worked on reproductive health at Hampton, a historically black university in Virginia, as well as in the Hampton Roads community where the school sits. She felt compelled to help increase reproductive health resources for students by launching the hotline with Brown in March. They’ve given away 26 units of emergency contraception donated by a group in the community.
“I had to continue to push for expanded access,” Thomas said, adding that having students provide the emergency contraception to their peers helps “eliminate that shame factor.”
They’re among a growing number of college and university students working to increase the availability of emergency contraception on their campuses, said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. Keene said many college and university health centers don’t carry emergency contraception or have limited hours, restricting access.
“Emergency contraception is stigmatized, along with a lot of reproductive health-care services,” she said, adding that students are “seeing that there is a real gap in health care and that’s why they are stepping up to take matters into their own hands.”
Hampton University officials distanced the school from the hotline, issuing a campus health advisory informing students it was “not a sanctioned organization or effort.”
“The administrators of the hotline are not licensed. Students who elect to take this medication do so at their own risk and/or benefit,” Karen T. Williams, the university’s health center director, said in the advisory. “Although emergency contraception is considered safe and is available over the counter without a prescription, we encourage students who choose to take the medicine to seek follow up care with a medical provider.”
College students nationally have argued that limited health center hours create a barrier to accessing the emergency contraceptive on campuses during weekends or late at night. The morning-after pill is more effective the sooner it’s taken, greatly reducing the chance of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
At Hampton, students who need emergency contraception are given a prescription by the health center for Plan B or Ella, which requires a prescription, or are told that Plan B can be purchased over the counter, university officials said. The university also provides on-call nurses after hours, the officials said.
Even so, Brown, 21, said she has faced invasive questions about her sex life when visiting Hampton’s health center for injections of Depo-Provera, a birth-control shot given every three months. She said she isn’t asked the same questions when she visits her physician at home.
University officials said medical providers use screening questions to determine patients’ needs and to determine the best care.
At George Mason University, three vending machines have started offering the morning-after pill in the last year, said Jul Delaune, 20, and Caroline Simpson, 21, students who urged the university to include the pill in vending machines.
The machines, which also offer ear buds and pain relievers, are stocked with a generic version of Plan B that costs $31.80, including tax. Students use a touch screen to select the product and are given three options to pay: credit card, Apple Pay or Android Pay.
Eighteen morning-after pills were sold from the first vending machine installed on campus during October, and 16 were sold the month after, Delaune said. Sales numbers for two vending machines that started carrying the emergency contraception more recently are not available.
Emergency contraception is also provided for a fee at George Mason’s health clinics, according to the university’s website. Nurses meet with students, provide information on how emergency contraceptives work and answer questions.
Delaune and Simpson want to normalize conversations about sexual health, but they acknowledge some students may feel self-conscious about interacting with a store clerk or health clinician.
“Students are able to get condoms without having to talk to anybody,” Simpson said. “So we want them to feel like this is also an option and you don’t have to feel bad about it.”