There’s perhaps nothing more intimidating in a young adult’s life than leaving the comfy confines of the family nest for the first time and venturing off to college. But University of Illinois students can take comfort knowing a well-developed and well-supported network of fellow students – or “peer educators,” as they’re known on campus – are ready and willing to help them navigate the swirling sea of college life.
Heidi Hardt has made a difference in other student lives and developed strong professional skills.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.
The peer educator programs on the Urbana campus not only make life better, safer and healthier for students, they’re also designed to promote student leadership, organizers say.
Kim Rice is the peer education coordinator at McKinley Health Center, which holds student outreach sessions in a variety of health-related areas including fitness, stress management, cross-cultural health, nutrition and sexual health.
She says the skills and knowledge the peer educators develop is something her unit takes pride in.
“It’s part of why we like to promote the program, to give students these types of opportunities to develop their leadership, public speaking and program skills,” Rice said. “Peer education enhances and influences both the peer educators’ personal sense of wellness and the wellness of the campus community. It offers real-life, professional training skills that students can use in future careers.”
Heidi Hardt, a senior community health major from Dundee, Illinois, is in her sixth semester as a stress-management peer educator with McKinley. She says the experience has helped crystallize what she wants to do with her life.
“I found out through my experience as a peer educator that I want to do something related to health education and promotion with my career,” she said.
“I’ve discovered that I really enjoy sharing knowledge with other people, as well as seeing their reaction to it and having them ask me questions.”
The experience has afforded Hardt the chance to make a difference in her fellow students’ lives while also being able to burnish her professional credentials.
“It gives you great leadership skills, great public speaking and presentation skills and it looks good on a resume,” she said. “When I went for an interview for a summer internship, they asked me a lot about my experience as a stress management peer, as well as my facilitation skills.”
Amanda Carey, a senior psychology major from New Lenox, Illinois, sees peer educators as the bridge between students and campus resources like McKinley and the Counseling Center.
“Students like to hear certain information from their peers,” said Carey, who also is a stress-management peer educator at McKinley.
According to Rice, it’s invariably easier for students to hear messages on certain subjects from people their own age.
“Students relate well to other students, and it’s much easier for students to digest information when it’s coming from a fellow student rather than a professor, counselor or other mentor,” she said. “They’re also able to reach students where they’re at, meaning in the residence halls, out on the quad or in the classrooms, which is something we can’t do. They’re in those same environments as other students.”
And they’re also able to reach them where they’re at developmentally.
“Peer educators just have an inherent knowledge of how students their age want to receive health and wellness messages,” said Rice, who also is McKinley’s sexual health educator.
Outside of McKinley’s peer educators, there are even more student-leaders looking out for the well-being of fellow students, including those at the Women’s Resources Center, whose goal is to raise awareness of gender and women’s issues on the Urbana campus.
“We do our best to ensure that this campus is a safe, inclusive place for all,” said Molly McLay, the assistant director of the center, which runs the First Year Campus Acquaintance Rape Education (FYCARE) workshop, an interactive discussion on campus sexual assault.
“It’s a two-hour, discussion-based workshop about what sexual assault is, the effects sexual assault can have on a survivor and the ways that students can help support a survivor,” McLay said.
The sessions are run by undergraduates – ranging from second-semester freshmen to second-semester seniors – who complete a rigorous, intensive training process.
“It’s a packed workshop, but the thing that makes it work is that it’s students teaching other students,” McLay said. “Since it’s such a sensitive topic, one that students don’t get to talk about all that often, there are lots of questions. But the peer educators are trained to handle the entire spectrum of questions they may be asked.”
Peer educators personalize the FYCARE workshop to their unique experiences, which helps show their audience that “they’re a student who cares a lot of about this, which is why you should care about it, too,” McLay said.
After the initial mandatory session, students often become interested in getting more involved, and may opt to become a facilitator for the program, McLay said.
Which is exactly how Jenny Lenzini, a junior in broadcast journalism from Woodstock, Illinois, became interested.
“My first reaction to the idea of a two-hour session on sexual assault was, ‘I don’t want to go to this,’” she said.
But once she got there, she had a light-bulb moment.
“It turns out this was something important to me,” Lenzini said. “It got me interested in wanting to teach other people and let them know everything I had learned.”
Men can join, too.
“Since men can be victims of sexual assault, we want them to know how to get help,” McLay said. “We strive to have gender balance in the workshops.”
Blake Bullock, a senior psychology major from Kewanee, Illinois, is a peer educator for the FYCARE program who facilitates workshops for first-year and transfer students on sexual assault.
“I became interested because I am a survivor of sexual assault, and I tell everyone that at the beginning of my workshop,” he said. “It’s something that I feel students need to be educated on, and I feel as though I offer a lot to the program based on my experience as a survivor.”
As a member of the LGBT community, Bullock said his experience initially wasn’t recognized in the workshop.
“I’m happy to report that it’s a much more open and inclusive environment than when I took (the workshop) as a freshman,” he said. “It’s really good to see that progress.”
Bullock also said the experience has helped him understand his fellow students, “which is very important on such a large campus.”