Brittney Vigna, Assistant Director of Health Promotion & Wellness, University of Alabama
March 21, 2017
I remember my interview with the University of Alabama, and my now-current supervisor saying the words “we have 135 peer health educators.” I also remember thinking, how is that even humanly possible? Coming from my previous institution with 50 peer educators (which was still a lot to handle in my position as a 20 hour-a-week graduate assistant), the thought of managing 135 undergraduate peer educators as a new professional seemed like an unfeasible task, but nonetheless, I jumped into the challenge.
Fast forward to three years later. I now supervise 160 peer educators who are part of our peer education organization called Project Health and Gamma, have broadened our peer education group to four distinct branches, and, along with my co-advisor, have developed a new evaluation program for our 60 hours a week of on-campus programming. We are able to conduct about 30,000 interactions on campus each semester, and each of our peer educators puts in at least five volunteer hours per week.
As important as it is to have a peer education group that is creating change on campus, peer health education organizations have proven to be great retention strategies for undergraduate students because of social involvement and the emotional support that accrues from involvement (Tinto, 2012). Internally, our organization has become extremely successful in the last few years in regards to overall reach, impact, and retention, due to the following factors: creating a student-centered leadership program, investing in our organization and members, and the development of solid learning outcomes and a training program.
It should be the goal of every peer education advisor to have to recruit as few members as possible. The overarching goal should be to create an environment in which students want to stay involved until they graduate. An important factor in this goal is knowing your audience. Every semester, we survey our incoming and veteran peer educators. This past fall, approximately 73% of students said they joined Project Health and Gamma to get more involved on campus; almost 45% joined for leadership opportunities; and 50% joined to help people. (Note: Not all of our students have health-related majors, and a majority of the reasons that they joined were outside of the scope of “health and wellness.”) It is critical to actively engage every student, and we have accomplished this through a detailed student leadership structure.
I asked the Project Health and Gamma president, Olivia Gobble, to explain her perspective on the benefits of this. She said, “Within our organization, we have an extensive executive board and council. The way we structure our organization not only allows issues to be dealt with quickly and by the people best suited for the job, but it also allows individuals to get involved with the leadership aspect of the organization as soon as they want. This lets us have the best members possible in leadership positions and the people who are elected genuinely want to be involved.”
Investing in Organization and Members
Investing in the peer organization and in peer educators is a part of organizational retention that needs to be planned and strategic. We separate our investments into two separate categories: professional development and organizational morale.
Providing continued professional development opportunities is a huge part of ensuring the success of your organization. When outreach shifts are scheduled like ours, it is critical that the work of the peer educator does not become redundant or feel like a chore. Therefore, we treat all of our peer educators as young professionals. In addition to weekly health topic trainings, we offer incentivized professional development opportunities in the form of resume and LinkedIn critiques, diversity trainings, on-campus networking opportunities, and more. All of these are designed to not only supplement their experience as a peer educator, but also enhance their future career.
When it comes to organization morale, we give that area to our leadership team. Students know what students want, and taking in their input is crucial. I asked our organization president, Olivia, for her input on organization morale:
We collect the dates of our members' birthdays, and when their birthdays come around, we announce it at the meeting along with giving them their favorite snack. Additionally, we have Peer Education Excellence, which we utilize to announce any success our members have. Submitted by our members on a weekly basis, it is a chance for interns to get a shout out from their peers, whether it be getting into medical, dental, or graduate school, landing their dream internship, or just doing something kind and considerate within the organization. It is extremely important to Project Health and Gamma that our interns understand that we are only a part of what they do, and we want everyone to know how successful our individual members are. Lastly, as a means of getting to know everyone’s names, we have weekly ‘Get to Know Me’ presentation slides. Three to four members per week will put together a Power Point with information about themselves. They tell us their name, hometown and major, along with what their plans for after graduation are. They then tell us some fun facts and include pictures, which almost always has people laughing by the end. We always end the meeting on these Get To Know Me slides because it not only helps everyone within the organization get to know each other, but it also starts the week on a positive and lighthearted note.
Training and Learning Outcomes
We center everything we do on learning outcomes. Any programming, training, or event we conduct has learning outcomes tied to it. We use the research posed through Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) in order to teach our students how to utilize learning outcomes correctly and effectively in on-campus programming. Although, as advisors, we do have final say in the learning outcomes (to ensure they are being developed correctly), the creation process starts at the ground level with our students. Every student is involved in the development process, giving them a sense of ownership of their own programming.
Additionally, training for peer educators needs to be continuous and intentional. We split our training into three days; the first day is for our leadership team, the second day is for our new members, and the third day is for all of the members. However, based on the weekly topic, we have topic experts come in each week to provide a topic-specific training. Additionally, our members create all of their own educational outreach materials. They do the information searches, and condense it into a format that would be easy for students to understand. Not only does this provide a way for them to engage themselves in the health topic, it also helps them learn more.
Continue the conversation below – what are some ways you recruit students and maintain their involvement in the group?
Is there an issue on campus you would like to hear more about? Email the BACCHUS Team with your suggestions!
The B-log highlights important peer education advising concepts. These “essentials” articles are featured here periodically, though you can always find them archived on the BACCHUS Homepage.
Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.
Tinto, V. (2012). Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press
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