Peer health educators bring valuable lessons and well-being activities to fellow students

January 12, 2023

A series of Mindful Finals programs around campus, finishing up the fall semester, were the work of the peer health educators (PHEs), a group of trained, undergraduate students who lead peer-to-peer education on the VCU campus focused on health and well-being.

The upbeat, interactive events helped students focus on critical health issues to combat the stress of finals with hands-on activities for students while they were taking a break from studying in the library, such as making affirmation jars or mindful beaded bracelets for a friend or for themselves. The 80-plus PHE programs presented over the course of the semester are all evidence-based practices presented in engaging and fun ways for the VCU community, directed at students by students.

“We want to make sure that people see themselves in the work that we do, that they don't feel judged when they talk with us about their experiences about health,” said Mia Liadis, assistant director of health promotion with RecWell and the PHE supervisor. “We want folks to walk away feeling empowered to ask questions and to learn more about their own identities when learning about their health and well-being, as well as how it applies to them in their community.”

Learning to be leaders

Twelve PHEs in total, including four senior PHEs who are paid, have gone through extensive training. All must enroll in the course TEDU494: Concepts of Peer Health Education offered through the School of Education, which sets a foundation for the experience.

“In that class, we learn the theory and concepts behind talking to your peers about health information, as well as being an ally and a supportive, active listener,” said Grace Smith, a senior PHE who is a junior biology major on the pre-med track and the guaranteed admissions program for medicine.

A woman standing in front of a cpr dummy
Grace Smith, a senior peer health educator, participating in Narcan training. (Photo credit: Rams in Recovery)

The class, which is open for enrollment now, is required but does not guarantee a PHE position or pay for taking on a senior role.

Additional training gives the PHEs National Association of Student Personnel Administrators certification. They have all received Recovery Ally training through RAMS In Recovery as well as Safe Zone training focusing on sensitivity to LGBTQIA+ issues. The group also receives CPR and basic life support training.

Liadis and Smith said the PHEs learn how to become leaders.

“Our health is often stigmatized for a bunch of different reasons,” Liadis said. “The course helps students get trained on how to talk to folks about things that might be challenging and to be good stewards of data, as well as how to find the most recent and emerging research when it comes to health and well-being. They learn how to talk about things like alcohol and other drug issues or mental health, sexual health and physical health, things that are not always taught to us.”

A straightforward, accessible approach to health and well-being

PHEs’ presentations are different from typical academic lectures in that they are fast paced. Smith thinks a peer delivering these topics can reduce taboos.

“Hopefully we are making it a little bit more accessible to people our age,” Smith said. “Instead of pretending that these things don't happen, we promote harm reduction and risk reduction. And that's one of the things that we learn in our training. Instead of ignoring these things and saying that something isn't happening, it's recognizing that it does happen and trying to mitigate the risk that comes with that.”

Presentations take on sex and birth control in a straightforward but lighthearted way.

Four people standing and one person squatting in front of a sign that says \"RECWELL AFTER\"
Peer Health Educators participated in RecWell After Dark. From left to right: Brenna Denicola (graduate assistant), Victoria Thomas (PHE), Sabereh Saleh (PHE), Mia Liadis (assistant director for health promotion at RecWell), and (front) Hannah Howard (PHE). (Photo credit: RecWell.)

“That's kind of an uncomfortable topic, but it's also a way that we can help keep our student body informed and safe instead of just not acknowledging that that's actually happening,” Smith said.

Students and others react in a wide variety of ways at the PHE events – by laughing, being genuinely interested, or surprised, according to Smith.

An alcohol awareness event explained to students the standard alcohol portion amounts.

“I think a lot of people just learn it at the parties or from their friends, and they don't actually have the theory behind it,” Smith said. “During these demonstrations, people would learn and be so shocked about different serving sizes and alcohol.”

The PHEs had students pour the amount they would typically serve themselves of a certain alcohol, and then the PHEs take what they poured and put it in a measuring cup to see the actual quantity, usually going way beyond the standard serving sizes of certain drinks.

Smith said: “When they go out and party, they have a realistic understanding of how to balance what they're doing with their activities.”

Empowering students

PHEs have autonomy to create programming and are currently working on tabling presentations on the flu and birth control barrier methods. The work is satisfying to Smith who is an aspiring doctor and is passionate about health and well-being.

“What makes a great PHE are folks who are passionate and interested about well-being, who really care about health equity and bringing everybody into the conversation about health, and also want to do that in a way that is authentic and nonjudgmental,” Liadis said.

The information is in high demand with dozens of requests from faculty, departments and clubs for presentations in classrooms and other settings around campus.

“It’s been very empowering to be able to have all this information that I wouldn't have known without doing something like this,” Smith said. “So being armed with this information, when I go out into society, I can protect myself, I can feel safe. And if somebody has a question, I can feel comfortable answering it. That's really incredible.”

Two women smiling and sitting at a table with a table cloth that says \"Peer Health Educators\" across the front.

By Dina Weinstein

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