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Campus Highlight: Peer Health Exchange

Have you ever wondered how different your life would be if you never got a comprehensive health education? Or maybe your high school years were much like those of some of Chicago’s public school students, and you never really did get one beyond poking around on the internet or learning from your friends. The thing is, getting your health education that way can lead to a lot of unanswered questions and leave you misinformed and overwhelmed. Peer Health Exchange is an organization on campuses in six major U.S. cities that aims to eliminate that misinformation by sending a brigade of college students into high school freshmen classrooms to teach those students about making the best decisions for their health. And we have a branch right here at UIC! Below you can see some of the history and purpose behind Peer Health Exchange, as well as an interview with UIC’s Co-Coordinators, Zoie Sheets and Tito Ponce!

Peer Health Exchange (or PHE) was started in 1999 by six students at Yale University who saw a need for health education in public schools in their community due to lack of funding and understaffing. In 2003, their movement was officially launched as Peer Health Exchange and spread to the six cities that it currently has programs in: San Francisco and the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.! In its 12 years in action, PHE has trained 7,500 college students to educate nearly 100,000 high school students!

PHE has a simple mission: to give teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. PHE volunteer health educators are trained to teach workshops on health topics like sex, marijuana and alcohol, mental health, and more, with each workshop focusing on sections such as assessing resources, communication and advocacy, decision making, and reflection. These workshops aim to achieve the PHE mission of teaching teens to make healthy decisions!

If you’re not already intrigued, check out our interview with UIC’s PHE Co-Coordinators, Tito Ponce and Zoie Sheets!

HC: What is your position in PHE and what does it entail?

Zoie: My position with PHE is “CC” or Co-Coordinator. There are two of us in this role, myself and Tito Ponce. The primary role of a CC is to coordinate and manage the entire volunteer corps at their school. Basically, we are the connection between PHE staff and UIC volunteers. We train the “LCs” (Leadership Council Members) so that they can train health educators, coordinate workshop scheduling, and continuing growing as leaders. The best part of this role, in my opinion, is reminding volunteers of the “why,” keeping them encouraged to work toward their goals and passions, and watching them develop their own passions for our work.  My fellow CC does a fantastic job of also helping me remember the why and helping me to grow as a leader and individual!

Tito: This year I am a CC, which stands for Co-Coordinator. I’m awesomely paired with the best co-leader, Zoie Sheets. As co-coordinators, our job is to take care of many of the logistical aspects of PHE. We also act as a bridge from the PHE Chicago Staff to our PHE chapter at UIC. With this connection we learn how to effectively train college student volunteers, specifically members of our Leadership Council, or LCs as we call them. Essentially we train them on how to train other college student volunteers on how to teach. It’s a whole cascading waterfall of leadership and classroom-teaching training!

HC: How did each of you first get involved with PHE and why?

Zoie: Actually, my first interaction with PHE was getting a little piece of paper shoved in my hand as I walked across campus. Lesson learned that day? Actually read the flyers people hand out, they just might change your life. I glanced at it and thought, “Hey! Working with youth and health! That’s what I want to do!” So, I attended an information session and fell in love with the idea of PHE. I was a health educator my first year and during my fourth workshop a student approached me and let me know that my workshop had let her know she had options. She had intended to commit suicide that weekend and now knew she had options to get help. This was the defining moment for me – I would be in PHE all four years. I have endless stories similar to this now, and each time I encounter this type of situation I am reminded of the “why” and inspired to continue being involved with not only PHE, but also Public Health and social justice work.

Tito: I always find this a funny question to answer. I first heard about PHE from my Freshman Orientation Leader and I wasn’t interested in the slightest! I thought, “Oh that’s for like doctors and nurses, this has nothing to do with me.” Two weeks into school my roommate at the time had mentioned that the application was closing that night and that I should apply. I hesitantly applied (minutes before the application closed) and didn’t really think much about it. It wasn’t until my interview for PHE did I realize how awesome this opportunity was that I just applied for! I originally planned to join a few social clubs and just glide through college. Now, going into my third year with PHE, I’ve realized that the reason that I’ve stayed with this organization is because I wholeheartedly stand by their mission: To provide teens with the knowledge and skills to make healthy decisions.

HC: What do you think the most important impact that PHE has on the Chicago Community is?

Zoie: One of my favorite things about this organization is the “trickle-down” effect that we have on communities. It starts all the way with PHE staff who train Co-Coordinators at each college. These CCs then work to train and manage LCs, who then train their Senior Health Educators (SHEs) and Health Educators (HEs). The SHEs, HEs, LCs, and CCs (basically everyone at the college!) all go into Chicago classrooms and provide vital knowledge and skills in order to empower teens to make the decisions that are healthiest for them. These teens talk to their friends, siblings, parents, neighbors and more… the information can then be spread so that everyone has the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions! These teens may not otherwise have access to an accepting and comfortable place to ask necessary questions concerning their health and life in general. Interacting with volunteers that are near their age, that are peers, allows them to be open about their questions, fears, and hopes. There has been more than one instance in which I have had a teen tell me they weren’t considering college until they met PHE volunteers. Not to mention the countless teens that have told us they have used knowledge or skills from PHE to make a healthy decisions (61% of them, before they even finish the program) or plan to use it in the future (94%)! The impact PHE has is tangible… you can see the differences right there in front of you. The more times you are in the classroom, the more you realize the need for a program like PHE.

Tito: Take PHE’s mission a step further and you realize that we do a lot more than that. We are empowering teens in Chicago to voice their own health concerns. We are providing them with a safe space to ask questions about health and general life concerns that they typically wouldn’t have otherwise. We are letting them know that what’s healthy for one person may not be what’s healthy for someone else, and that’s ok! Health runs a spectrum and we all can fall anywhere on that spectrum anytime and it’s important to understand that there are resources that can help you attain your own personal health goals. It’s this dialogue and interaction with Chicago teens that I think is so important and absolutely necessary.

HC: What are some of the perks of becoming a Health Educator?

Zoie: I love telling people about PHE, but sometimes I don’t love this question… it’s so hard to narrow them down! Becoming a health educator gives you such unique opportunities. You get to meet a group of people that are passionate and dedicated and close enough to call each other a “PHamilE.” You provide a vital service to teens who deserve access to health education in order to reach their utmost potential. You get to volunteer in a way that makes a very real impact right there in the moment (and sometimes you get students that tell you exactly how it impacted them!) You get to explore both the city and yourself and develop entirely new senses of self-awareness and cultural competency. Volunteers joke about living the “PHE Life,” but this really so true. Being a PHE volunteer teaches you to think differently, to challenge yourself and others to live life open-minded.  It also opens tons of doors for future opportunities- including leadership within PHE and networking with professionals at our Career Development Event!

Tito: There are LITERALLY so many. Becoming a Health Educator with PHE opens a plethora of career and leadership opportunity. Within the organization itself, a volunteer learn valuable health knowledge and life skills that are even applicable to life outside of PHE. I can’t even count how many times I’ve used PHEs guide to decsion making because I’ve used it so many times in my everyday life. On top of that, they are given opportunities for growth by applying for a number of leadership positions as they return to PHE in subsequent years. They can become a Senior Health Educator (SHE) who acts as a mentor to new Health Educators; a Leadership-Senior Health Educator (L-SHE) who is a SHE that has added leadership roles such as: Social Media Captain, working with our National staff; a volunteer engagement director, working within our chapter to provide opportunities and events for community building within PHE at UIC; or a Community Relations Director, working with the UIC student body and the Chicagoland area to increase the scope of PHEs presence and involving other student organizations and community partners. PLUS, they get work with a SUPER COOL group of volunteers who are dedicated to making a difference in the great city of Chicago.

HC: What is the most fun thing about being involved in PHE and why?

Zoie: Wow, all the hard questions! There are so many fun things! It is honestly so fun to experience this level of connection with fellow college students. The “PHamilE” is filled with like-minded people who are all fighting for the same cause – to empower teens to make healthy decisions. Every time we have a meeting we have so much fun coming up with ways to work toward our mission, sharing classroom stories, and bonding as both friends and fellow educators. Some of my closest friends have come from PHE- including my best friend and fellow CC! Aside from all of the fun at meetings and trainings, the classroom itself is such a blast. These teens are all so excited to see you and learn from you in a relatable and comfortable way! They have you cracking up from the second the class starts to the moment it ends. They love to joke with someone who gets it, who was just in their shoes, and who is young enough to relate to the music they listen to, shows they watch, phrases they use and more. Each student brings a unique perspective and personality to the classroom, creating a dynamic that has lots of room for fun and growth. There have been very few times that I have ever left a classroom without a giant smile on my face!

Tito: The best part is getting to work with the high school students! Going into a classroom and starting off with a group of 9th graders that are sometimes apprehensive to interact with these random college kids teaching them about Health, and then seeing how interactive they are and being able to answer almost all of their questions is so awesome! I like to consider myself a pretty hip 20 year old but it’s funny when they bring up current pop culture in the classroom and I’m just like, “WHAT!? I haven’t seen that vine yet!!!”

HC: What does the application process look like?

Tito and Zoie (TNZ): The application process is really simple! All someone has to do is go to www.peerhealthexchange.org/apply and fill out the application! The application takes about 10-15 minutes and is really just aiming to see the why behind someone’s interest in PHE. What inspired them to get involved? What are they passionate about and how will that contribute to their role as a health educator? The applications are due on September 11th, 11:59pm. On September 13th, all applicants will be notified of the status of their application and whether or not they have been invited for an interview. The following week, interviews will take place and then the new Health Educators will be selected. From there, training will begin to make sure the HEs are fully comfortable and prepared before setting foot in the classroom! If anyone would like more information, they can also attend information sessions on September 9th (5-6pm in Burnham Hall 121) or September 11th (4-5pm in Burnham Hall 114).

HC: In 5 words or fewer, how would you convince someone to join PHE?

Zoie: Change lives- theirs and yours.

Tito: Healthy communities start with you.

Wanna learn more? Click here for the Peer Health Exchange website! Interested in applying? Visit this link or swing by one of PHE’s info sessions, listed above! 

Erin is a Communication student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the President and Editor-in-Chief of UIC's Her Campus chapter. On a daily basis, she can be found making excessive film references and getting overly emotional about superhero TV shows. She has a deep passion for writing, movies, music, good books, and great food, and will gladly talk your ear off about all of the above if prompted to do so. 
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