JOHNSON CITY (May 16, 2016) – When Destiny Hill first came to the East Tennessee State University campus last fall, she admits she felt “alone.” Ashley Gensheimer, a rising senior from Knoxville, remembers that feeling, too. “Coming to college is hard,” Gensheimer said. “It’s scary.”
Hill and Gensheimer are aiming to improve that for others at ETSU. They are among the first-ever nationally certified Wellness Peer Educators on the campus.
Through a three-credit course taught for the first time this spring in ETSU’s College of Public Health, 14 students went through the national peer educator program, which aims to build a well-educated and sustainable peer education group on a campus.
The students gained critical knowledge to ultimately be able to provide information to peers and make referrals to appropriate campus resources, provide outreach activities and presentations to students and develop group action plans for health promotional activities on campus.
“In the fall, this group will come together and become a student organization,” said Dr. Mary Ann Littleton, an associate professor in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health and course instructor. “Then, they’ll start getting out there and making a difference in the lives of students.”
The ultimate goal, Gensheimer explained, is to “create a safe space” for students.
“It can be intimidating to ask for help from someone who has clear authority over you,” Gensheimer said. “Even if I like a professor, there’s something about having somebody on the same level as me that makes it easier to ask for help. We want to be that resource to get people where they need to be.”
Just going through the program has helped Hill feel more at ease. “I now know I have so many resources on this campus and in the community in general,” she said.
In addition to directing students to resources available to them, the peer educators aim to engage the campus community through health education programs that “inform people with facts rather than opinions,” said Bethany Mackey, a rising senior from Mars Hill, North Carolina, and newly minted Wellness Peer Educator. “I hope we can help break stigmas and change behaviors and thoughts toward things,” she said. “Peers influence the people around them.”
While the first cohort of Wellness Peer Educators gets active on campus, the class will be offered again in the fall to welcome a second round of peer educators into the fold.
“The more peer educators we have out there, the easier it is to find a knowledgeable person to get someone to the resources they need,” Hill said. “I think this program should be taught throughout all colleges and universities. It can promote health on every single campus.”
For more information about the Wellness Peer Educators program, contact Littleton at firstname.lastname@example.org.