Retaining & Sustaining Peer Educators
By Christine Johnston, MPH, Director of Health Promotion at Springfield College and Advisor to the Student Advocates for Wellness peer health education team
The Springfield College peer health education team - the Student Advocates for Wellness - are by far the best and the hardest part of my job. In order for them to be successful in all that they do on our campus, we have discovered that a strong support system is the most crucial element. When it comes to building and sustaining our team, the relationships that I have with each of the students and the relationships they have cultivated across campus are only small pieces. The most important relationships are those they build with each other. This team was not created overnight and sustaining it takes work every single year.
Even though the SAWs are student employees, they have significant ownership of the peer education program. This starts with involving them in the hiring process for new members. Current team members have the opportunity to host information sessions for interested students, participate in group interviews, and lead individual interviews. Hiring decisions are a team effort, and they have consistently demonstrated that they would rather hire diverse candidates that will make the team better than just offering spots to their friends. We also ensure that all candidates know that the commitment to the Student Advocates is for the remainder of their time at Springfield College (a minimum of 2 years). Students who can’t make this commitment usually figure it out during their first semester. I’d rather have someone decide that peer education isn’t for them a few weeks into training than let the team down later on!
The Student Advocates doesn’t function without all the members being on board for everything we do. We share team expectations from day one, including expected level of commitment, communication, and building support for all members. When we get into planning, we start with a brainstorming session and then we choose our ideas by consensus. This way, everyone’s ideas get incorporated into the plans for the semester. Any ideas that we don't get to in a given semester get rolled over to the next semester’s planning session, so they never get totally scrapped.
Sustaining our members is all about growing leaders within the team. Every student - beginning in their first semester - is expected to take a leadership role in planning and implementing events. As they become more experienced, the leadership roles get more intensive. Part of training is observing and co-facilitating programs, with the goal that more experienced peer educators develop newer peer educators for future leadership within the team. Peers also help evaluate each other; it’s a learning experience to write a great evaluation but they can really highlight constructive ways to improve.
It’s also critical that I, as the advisor, get to know each student individually. I want to ensure that I know them as people first, students second, and peer educators third. We start staff meetings with check-ins about their lives, not about their roles as peer educators. I know who’s struggling in chemistry, who’s going through a breakup, who spent their week trying to get Taylor Swift tickets instead of going to class, who’s thinking about studying abroad next year, and who’s working on their grad school applications. By building these relationships with me and with each other, it helps the team support each other through personal challenges.
We also build in lots of time for fun. Our semester staff retreats always focus on team-building. This past January we built marshmallow launchers and had a competition to see how far we could get marshmallows to fly. Sometimes our weekly staff meetings are for planning, sometimes they are for checking in, sometimes we do group training, and sometimes we’re taking silly photos. Building community and learning to work together is as crucial to doing good work as high-quality training.
Working with the Student Advocates hasn’t always been this easy. I inherited a peer education team that didn’t care as much as the current team does. It took time to recruit students who really wanted ownership of the program. I was lucky to come across some peer educators whose passions were in marketing; they led the team through a full rebranding with a more representative name, mission, website, logo, and more.
Honestly, COVID could have destroyed the Student Advocates, but they came out even stronger. During those first few weeks of lockdown, we used our staff meetings to stay connected and vent. My preschooler made every student a card that I mailed to them to let them know I was thinking of them. When the fall semester 2020 rolled around, we had to get creative. Some of those creative ideas turned out to be the best ideas we’ve had in a long time - now the team has an active and ongoing podcast and a reinvigorated Instagram account! This year we really struggled to work with residence life to bring programs into our halls. The Student Advocates started coming up with other ideas and partnerships across campus, which has brought about more creative programming than we’ve identified in a long time.
One of my rules with this team is to never say “no” (I save that for my own kids.). Instead, I say things like “let’s bring that to the group and see what everyone thinks”, or “who might we need to partner with to make this happen”, or “I don’t know if we can make that happen this semester, but let’s get started planning it for a future date”. In this way, the peer educators know that their ideas have merit, are important, and can see their suggestions come alive.
Growing a successful peer education team and program takes time. Once we had a handful of solid programs to offer our campus, I aimed for one measurable improvement each academic year; it might be creating a sustainable event like the team’s recent Sex in the Dark panel, formalizing the evaluation process, creating a partnership with the first-year wellness class instructors, or redoing the student training materials. Over time, these changes have added up - but we still have a lot more ways to serve our campus better!
It also takes campus support for peer educators to thrive. Over the years, the team has built relationships with the Campus Activities Board, the Vagina Monologues, other clubs and organizations, and has earned the respect of campus leadership. After winning their second consecutive national NASPA award in 2021, I asked the President to host the team at her house to celebrate (and was fortunate to have the support of our AVP for Student Affairs who volunteered to stand in for me at the event when I was home with COVID!). Peer educators deserve the same recognition as other students working hard on our campus, and they deserve hard-working advisors who see the best in every student.
Follow the Springfield College Student Advocates for Wellness on Instagram @sc_studentadvocates