Supporting fellow students through ups, downs and now a pandemic
Skidmore’s peer health educators — a group of student volunteers who promote healthy choices and lifestyles by educating themselves and their peers about health-related topics — are perhaps doing some of their most impactful work during the pandemic by helping students make and maintain meaningful social connections.
When Skidmore made the transition to remote learning during the spring semester, Health Promotions Director Jennifer McDonald said she was nervous about what it would mean for the program’s ability to continue to provide its services to the student body. But the peer health educators (PHEs) went right to work addressing subjects that hit home — from the Black Lives Matter movement to coping with loneliness during the pandemic — while sharing resources through the Skidmore PHEs Instagram account.
“Skidmore’s peer health educators are an incredibly creative, dedicated, empathic and flexible group of students and they immediately brought ideas to the table and put plans in motion. The transition was seamless,” said McDonald. “This semester, I’m seeing that play out again. As things shift and change, they continue to suggest fresh ideas and rise to whatever challenges present themselves.”
In late August, when students returned to campus for the fall semester, gatherings were initially restricted to online platforms. But the peer health educators hit the ground running with an assortment of virtual programs, from game nights and murder-mystery events to therapy dog meet-and-greets and open hours for casual conversation.
Through careful planning, they were able to begin offering small, socially distant in-person events, like a first-year lunch on the green, Saturday afternoon crafts at the Haupt Pond gazebo, outdoor yoga classes and a recent pumpkin-decorating event.
“I look forward to the positive responses we get from students about our programs,” said Sophie Cramer-Benjamin ’22. “I love to hear that students met their best friend at a Friday Night Out event or that they learned how to better manage their anxiety or stress at one of our events.”
Cramer-Benjamin leads the Peer Health Education program’s mental health committee, one of six committees — alongside health communication and marketing, community building, bystander intervention, sexual health, nutrition and fitness, and relationships — that work together to present programming in a variety of areas.
What does it take to be a PHE?
Through a selective application process, Health Promotion sets out each semester to choose a well-rounded, committed group of students with a range of interests, experiences and backgrounds to join the peer health educator family.
Peer health educators complete an initial three-credit course and participate in regular follow-up trainings on a variety of health topics that are most relevant to the college population. During a typical semester, they also work in the Student Wellness Center on campus.
“For me, the most rewarding part of being a peer health educator is directing my peers to the help they need,” said head PHE Will Christmann ’22. “The semester-long training each PHE is required to complete instills in us an acute knowledge of health and wellness resources both on and off campus. Although I am not a health or wellness professional, I can connect my peers to people who are.”
“Being a PHE is being a part of a passionate, community-oriented group of people who take time out of their busy weeks to focus on making sure our community is healthy in every sense of the word, and that is a wonderful thing to be a part of,” said Addison Braver-Walsh ’20, who leads the health communications and marketing committee.
Jen McDonald and peer health educators share their perspectives on the PHE program and why it is so important in this video created for New Student Orientation.
PHEs continue to motivate amid pandemic
As Skidmore’s COVID-19 management and mitigation efforts continue to keep case rates low on campus, the Peer Health Education team is rolling out an effort to stem “mitigation fatigue” by rewarding those who continue to take preventative efforts seriously. Over the next few weeks, peer health educators will be distributing thank-you cards to students demonstrating excellent mitigation behaviors.
“We are over halfway through the semester and we hope this type of positive reinforcement will help to re-energize folks and acknowledge that it’s definitely hard to comply all the time, but it’s also completely worth it,” said McDonald.
Looking ahead, the PHEs are developing a calendar of winter break opportunities that students can sign up for prior to leaving campus on Nov. 20. The PHEs want their peers to know they will still help them through these tough times, even after the semester ends.
“Everyone in the program really cares, and you know they care, because they don’t have to be in this,” said Hallie Eichholz '21, leader of the relationships committee. “They’re dedicated, they want to help the community, they want to be there for fellow students, and I think that’s really beautiful.”