Changing Lives Through Service on Campus: Peer Education at Hastings College (2006) -- Judy Sandeen
Editor's Note: Hastings College is unique among many liberal arts institutions its size in having a well organized and highly effective peer education network. Over the past two decades our students have won numerous national awards for their service to the campus community. Their success has been largely due to the vision and leadership of the Director of Campus Health Services, Judy Sandeen, whose reflections here introduce us to the important work of the Peer Umbrella Network (PUN).Peer health education has been in existence at Hastings College since 1985 when the first few hardy students formed a BACCHUS (alcohol education) affiliate. Since that time, five more groups have formed, and hundreds of students have participated in the trainings, teaching, service projects, and group activities organized by peer educators. Each student who has been an active Hastings College peer educator has been exposed to new ideas, new opportunities, and new ways of thinking about some of the world's most difficult problems and issues. As the peer education alumni continue to stay in touch, they nearly always express their gratitude for the experience of serving as peer educators, and they tell of the many ways their peer education background has served and helped them in their lives after graduating. In many cases, their service to the campus helped to determine and clarify their vocational goals and objectives. After experiencing the joys of doing work that makes a positive difference in the lives of undergraduates, many alumni seek to pursue this same passion in their professional careers.
In attempting to address the question of how service as a peer educator leads to personal development, it seems necessary to hear the voices of the peer educators themselves. This essay includes a number of statements from current Hastings College students from a variety of groups. Their statements will best illustrate the ways that they were able to grow as a result of their experiences. The names are fictitious, but the statements are real.
The peer education groups now in existence at Hastings College, in addition to BACCHUS, are: SHAC (Student Health Advisory Council), formed in 1986; PHIVE-O (Peer HIV Education Organization), formed in 1991; CARE (College Acquaintance Rape Educators), formed in 1992; Alliance (Gay/Straight Alliance), begun under another name in 1991 and re-formed as Alliance in 2002; and SPAM (Students Promoting Active Mental Health), formed in 2006. There are currently 99 students involved in all the groups combined, with some overlap of membership. As a group, the peer educators are referred to as PUN (Peer Umbrella Network) and they frequently assist each other with activities and projects. As students prepare to educate their peers about these tough subjects, they undergo a process of self-evaluation which most have found to be valuable in many other aspects of their lives. Through the training process, each student is led to look closely at personal attitudes and values, and to decide whether they will be able to teach their chosen subjects within the framework of those values. At times, as they learn more about a subject, they take a new look at previously-held beliefs and opinions, and they learn that there can be merit in the beliefs and opinions of others, even if those conflict with their own. This does not mean they give up their personal values — far from it. Indeed, it often means they learn more about why they hold these values and are able to better apply them to real-life situations. They often develop their own excellent qualities even more completely through the peer education experience and they become more fully realized as persons with a genuine desire to help others.
Peer educators don't become so because they are looking for a way to build their resume. It is about a passion they have to help their fellow students, their campus, and their community. We understand that we won't be able to do everything for our campus, but if we can help just one person, all the time, energy, and effort we put into what we do will have been worth it. If we can have an influence on one person's life so that they can lead a healthier lifestyle, we feel that our efforts shall not have been in vain (Kevin — BACCHUS member, 1 year).
I think being a peer educator has made me develop who I am. I found in the beginning it was hard to answer people's questions when I didn't have an answer to them myself. So I had to discover who I was, what I believed in, and what I stood for. Then I could help others. I find that being a peer educator has made me develop amazing people skills. I had always thought I was a good listener, but it turns out I wasn't. I have taught myself how to really listen. That is something I am thankful for because I can use that skill well throughout my future. I love people. I love working with people, and I love to be around people, so being a peer educator makes me comfortable. People know me, and know if they have questions, they can ask me, and I will be as open-minded, educated, and honest as possible. And one last thing about being a peer educator that really has formed who I am, I know I am not perfect. I don't know everything, and I am not always correct. I find that this is a hard reality to come to, and not having an answer to a question is ok. Wow, that was a blow to me the first time I had to say, "I don't know, but I will look it up and ask around for the answer." You see, being a peer educator is a constant learning experience, because unfortunately I don't always have the answer, but I might be able to help find it (Debbie — BACCHUS member, 3 years).Most Hastings College peer educators through the years have been taught, as part of their peer education training, that the greatest impact of peer education is on the peer educators themselves. The second greatest impact is on their closest friends, followed by the effect it has on their larger circle of associates. Ironically, the least impact seems to be on the actual classes they teach. I believe most peer educators would not agree with this statement when they first hear it, but as they spend years in their respective groups, they recognize its truth. The impact they experience comes from a variety of sources. Learning about a difficult health-related subject causes one to stretch and grow in unexpected ways. Students who come to peer education with the goal of helping others are generally highly motivated and altruistic, but they seldom understand exactly what it is that they will be asked to do. They quickly learn that they will be speaking openly and frankly, not only in one-on-one situations, but also in public, using terminology and stating facts that make many people uncomfortable and resistant. Through their training and the example of the older peer educators who have already experienced these situations, they begin to gain a level of comfort with the idea that the goal of preserving health and lives outweighs their own natural reticence. In turn, these experiences make it easier for these students to bring up uncomfortable subjects in their own lives and experiences, and to deal more honestly with any situation.
Being a peer educator on the Hastings College campus has really allowed me to grow as an individual. Not only have I become more outgoing but it has also allowed me to spread the message that CARE shares with students here on campus and to community members. CARE has given me a passion to make a difference and make this world a better place (Susan — CARE member, 1 year).
Another reason for the influence of peer education on the peer educators themselves is in the nature of the experiences they have during their tenure. They have the opportunity to meet and learn more about people who are different from themselves, locally, regionally, and nationally. Students who attend conferences about sexual violence, alcohol and other drugs, and/or HIV/AIDS have the opportunity to learn from the life experiences of others who have lived with addictions, illness, and violence in their lives. Through the years, Hastings College students have gained a national reputation as a group that is open to inviting others to join with them in informal ways at these conferences. Through these interactions they have gained a new and abiding appreciation of the value of listening and learning from those whose situations and histories are different from their own. Yet another way peer education influences the students involved is through the management of conflict. Due to the sensitive nature of much that peer educators teach, they can meet with resistance and disagreement with their message. During their training (and here much credit must be given to the American Red Cross HIV Basics Program), they learn that their task is to share life-saving information and to model appropriate language and attention to facts, rather than to enter into argument or rebuttal when they encounter session participants who disagree with those facts. Through practice (some might say unending practice!) during trainings, they are faced with a wide range of possible reactions to their messages, and other members critique their responses in a constructive and respectful manner. This approach to conflict becomes almost second nature to some, who then report that they are able to stand firm in many other situations.
As peer educators work within their groups, they learn a great deal about group process. As they spend time together at trainings, retreats, meetings, work projects, and conferences, they become skilled at recognizing strengths and weaknesses within themselves and other members of the group, and at knowing how best to utilize their own and each other's strengths and weaknesses. In addition, they begin to recognize the value of stretching beyond their previous abilities, and of transforming weaknesses into strengths. Group members often encourage each other to try new skills and/or experiences, and support each other in those efforts. They quickly learn the necessity of fulfilling individual commitments in order to have a successful group. They write their mission statements anew each year because we firmly believe that those who will be fulfilling the stated mission must be fully engaged in the formation of that mission. Each year the group is new, as new members enter and seniors graduate, and we do not expect new members to buy into the previous year's mission statement. Through this process, each member gives careful thought to the mission of the group, and the voices of new members carry equal weight with the voices of returning members. Members are made to understand their value to the group through this process, before they are asked to educate their peers. They learn the value of communicating honestly and respectfully to all members of the group. They learn and believe that new ideas and creativity are welcomed and encouraged. They agree that they do not want to fall into the trap of "group-think," but rather are encouraged to share differing opinions and beliefs in a safe environment.
Peer education has helped me to develop into a more open-minded, more confident, and more caring person. It has helped me to discard judgmental behavior and instead to just listen to other people. It teaches you to think before you assume things about others. It shows you how to empathize with others who may have totally different life situations than yourself. I've become more confident through giving presentations with co-presenters. My speaking skills have improved, and I know I have someone with me to back me up. Peer education teaches you that people have choices — they might not always make the best choice but they are still good people. Peer educators care about people, and they simply want to educate them so they will make the healthiest choices in the future! (Ellen — PHIVE-O, 2 years).When peer educators first become members of their groups they are reminded of their responsibilities as role models. As we discuss together what this means in real life, they believe they understand the importance of the role, and they verbalize agreement with the concept and its application. Through their years as peer educators, however, they are put to the test as role models more frequently than they could first imagine, and at times they do not fully live up to the expectation. They are human. There is a level of accountability within each group because of the probability of a negative impact on the entire group if one member is a poor role model, so these lapses do not usually go unnoticed. Peer educators learn the value of "carefrontation" when a group member has not modeled in a manner compatible with the peer educator role. Each group writes its own "playground rules" at the beginning of each year, and being an effective role model is always an important component, so each member owns the responsibility to fulfill that expectation. The ethical standards for peer educators demand that they choose behaviors that give them the credibility they need to teach their difficult subjects. Those standards include: learning the subject matter thoroughly; respecting the dignity of the peers they teach; avoiding acting beyond the scope of service for which they were selected and trained; observing confidentiality of the students they serve; and refraining from using their status as peer educators for personal benefit. Yet another way the peer education experience affects the development of the individual students is through the effects of the services they provide. Whether assisting with or donating blood at one of the Red Cross Bloodmobiles each semester, participating in the Alliance Day of Silence observance, organizing the Central Nebraska AIDSWalk or the Cystic Fibrosis Walk, participating in Trick or Treat for NAP (Nebraska AIDS Project), or supporting a number of other special events, individual peer educators grow in self-confidence, self-worth, and interpersonal skills. These services remind the peer educators of the reasons for their efforts, as they become aware of the real needs in the world around them, and learn how an individual can reduce the harm caused by the various physical and social ills they address. These service projects are not extraneous to the missions of the groups, but rather are integral to those missions, as service is necessary to understanding. Each group is assisted by all the other groups in their service efforts, thereby enhancing individual knowledge and skills. When graduating peer educators are asked to share a most meaningful experience or memory as a "nugget" for those who will follow them, they frequently share a memory from a service experience. Many of these students come to peer education with a service background, but for some this is new ground that offers the possibility of continuing to learn through service. Students learn the value of assessing needs, rather than pursuing a service project because it is "flashy" or currently popular. They develop skills in organizing and gathering support for their service projects as well as the necessity of evaluation and record-keeping.
Peer educators learn and practice the skill of organizing and giving educational presentations about the topic addressed by their group. Because they learn the topic so thoroughly, and have practiced giving presentations to other members of their groups, they gradually feel more confident in standing before their peers to teach valuable life information. Presentations are team-taught, so students learn from each other about teaching techniques and learning activities. They learn about various learning styles in order to help them present their material in a manner most likely to be retained by their peers. Students who believed they would never be able to stand before a group and speak learn that their fears are overcome by the importance of the topic and by their sincere desire to share life-changing information. Peer educators must be good listeners in order to be effective. They usually believe they are good listeners and frequently state that belief in their applications to the groups. They also tend to believe that "giving advice" is a necessary skill for a caring friend. But they soon come to learn that effective helping seldom consists of giving advice. Many Hastings College peer educators take a short not-for-credit course, Certified Peer Educator (CPE), during which they spend a great deal of time on effective listening and referral skills. During CPE, small-group work is utilized to teach effective interpersonal communication, with role-plays and discussions of real-life situations as tools to enhance learning and retention. Peer education alumni often report that they have internalized those listening skills and continue to use them in work and family situations. Hastings College peer educators have moved into a wide range of occupations and vocations after graduation. We hear back from teachers, physical therapists, public health professionals, lawyers, writers, nurses, businesspeople, physicians, homemakers, non-profit managers, and naturalists. Some of these alumni had planned to pursue these careers prior to their peer education experience, but others changed to helping professions after experiencing the joys, rewards, and challenges of service through peer education. It is with joy that we hear reports of how these young people are using the knowledge and skills they learned in their chosen careers and even in their roles as partners and parents. A final contribution by a current peer educator seems to sum up the value of this service. Many thanks to all of the students who took the time to share their experiences and feelings about being peer educators. It has officially been a year since I became a peer educator. I look back on where I was last year and see so many changes in myself. This experience has changed me so much — it truly has contributed to who am I am today and the person I will grow to be.
Having been involved in peer education for the past four years it is impossible to imagine my life without it. Peer education has completely shaped who I became as I continued through college. The first group I was involved in was the College Acquaintance Rape Educators (CARE). I really don't remember why I joined but I know that whatever reason it was it was a good one. I joined, went to retreat that next fall and have loved almost every minute of it. All of the students that have come through have touched my life in some way that I won't forget. The second group I became involved in was the Gay/Straight Alliance. I started attending meetings when I was a sophomore. This group personally affected me the most. I think the first year and a half I was involved in Alliance I just volunteered to do things like sitting at booths, working on a planning committee, etc. But about the middle of my junior year I was coming to a major fork in the road of my life. A decision had to be made and I thank the members and especially the sponsors of Alliance for the support and guidance they gave, whether they know it or not. Although I have a strong connection to C.A.R.E. and always will, the Alliance is something that I will fight for and support for many years to come. The change that we as members were able to bring about in that group is amazing and I am very proud that I was a part of it and will continue to be active while I'm in graduate school (Jason — CARE and Alliance member, 4 years).
From my peer education training, certification, and overall experiences, I feel that I'm a more "well-rounded" person. My perspective has been challenged and educated time and time again and I welcome the culture shock that accompanies the whole process. With my understanding that deepens with each activity that I take part in comes a greater understanding of the needs of others and ways that I can make myself available to help them. From being a peer educator I've discovered a gentler, more understanding part of myself, a part that may have always been there but definitely hadn't been accessed. Tangibly, I know I've become a better, more accommodating listener and I approach conflict in a more mature, effective manner. I'm a better communicator. I feel that I've become more knowledgeable in areas other than sexual assault. I now understand what it takes to create a healthy relationship and I have a greater appreciation for the power of the words I say. I know how hurtful and belittling simple words can be, and I am careful to be respectful in what I say. In only one year, I've changed a lot, and for the better. I can say with confidence that I have a greater understanding of and appreciation of myself and others. I value the feelings, thoughts, and concerns of those around me, and in a roundabout way, that is what peer education is all about (Nancy — CARE member, 1 year).Through these past twenty-one years as an advisor to peer educators, I have been honored to work and learn with the most highly motivated and caring students at Hastings College. I believe that service as a peer educator has been a vehicle for helping these students learn more about themselves and for meeting personal challenges while serving others. I will be forever in the debt of Hastings College for allowing me the privilege of this experience.