After nearly two months of training, Mills College Peer Health Educators will put their knowledge to the test when they start teaching health education workshops to ninth-graders at Oakland high schools.
Mills is one of four schools participating in Peer Health Exchange (PHE)’s first year in the Bay Area. Along with launching the program at Bay Area colleges, the national headquarters were also moved to San Francisco in July of this year. Also participating are University of San Francisco, UC Berkeley, and St. Mary’s College.
Launched five years ago at both Columbia and New York University, Peer Health Exchange is a non-profit organization that trains college students to teach a comprehensive health curriculum to local high school students.
According to Bay Area Program Associate Minha Popalzai, who worked as a health educator at Columbia in New York City and who led training for new members, “PHE’s mission is to give teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions.”
The program began when founders Louise E. Davis and Katy Dion saw that local teenagers were no longer being taught health education in school. Their goal is to expand to a new site every year; this year’s site was the Bay Area. Popalzai called the new members “pioneers.”
Madeleine Anderson, sophomore Co-Coordinator for PHE at Mills, said she found out about PHE last semester when students from Boston came to recruit for the start of the Bay Area site.
Anderson found a connection to PHE’s mission because of the Advanced Public Radio Reporting class she took last spring. Anderson was working on a project that profiled a pregnant teenage girl from an Oakland public high school.
“I felt like if she had had health classes it would have changed her life. If PHE had been there, things would’ve been different for her,” she said.
Erin Stoll, sophomore Leadership Council member, says she joined “because the only health education I got in high school was abstinence only. And I’ve seen the effects of not getting a good health education.”
Despite the well-intended mission and personal motives of the members, there have been some difficulties in getting the program up and running. The time commitment is considerable and was an issue for many prospective applicants, according to Anderson. The Co-Coordinators are expected to put in eight to 10 hours per week, the Leadership Council members six to eight, and Health Educators four to six.
According to Anderson, there has also been some disorganization and lack of communication. Technical difficulties arose when their website server crashed which complicated scheduling meeting dates.
Marjan Soleimanieh, sophomore Co-Coordinator, described the first few weeks as “hell work” but tried to keep a positive attitude by adding, “it will be worth it.”
Before Health Educators can teach in the classrooms, they are tested on the curriculum of their particular workshop. After passing the test, they will have their teaching skills evaluated by the other members.
Each member is given a list of her responsibilities as a PHE member. According to this list, one requirement is that they be workshop experts and workshop teachers.
Each member is responsible for learning one specific workshop on topics such as contraception, healthy relationships, and alcohol and drugs. Included on the list are the time commitment, the PHE mission, and specific duties according to their position as a Leadership Council member or Health Educator.
Leadership Council Member Isis Blanchette has been having fun being a leader despite the challenges she has faced.
“At first it was kind of challenging because I had to make sure my health educators were on task and that everyone was on the same page.”
Health Educator Katherine Hluchan joined PHE, like many others, due to the poor health education she received in high school. Hluchan is in the “Healthy Relationships” workshop and said she has learned a lot just by having to learn the curriculum herself.
Yet, learning the workshop hasn’t been easy for her.
Hluchan said, “I study the booklet whenever I have time, but when you have extra school work it’s hard to have extra time to look at it.”
Despite not having the entire workshop memorized yet, Hluchan is anxious to begin teaching in the classrooms.
Hluchan said, “I’m looking forward to doing one of the skits in the beginning. It’s kind of cheesy but it gets the message across.”
Part of Hluchan’s workshop includes a skit between two health educators. Hluchan described that the two educators get into an argument and then explain to the students that is what can happen when there is miscommunication in a friendship.
According to Popalzai the local schools to be visited by PHE members are yet to be determined.