A Conversation with PHE Bay Area volunteers: Alissa & Smitha

Published on June 22nd, 2017

(Pictured from left to right: PHE Volunteer Dolly Nunez, Vice President of External Affairs Emily Gasner Medress, CEO & Co-Founder Louise Langhieier, PHE Volunteers Alissa Stauffer and Smitha Gundavajhala)

Meet Alissa Stauffer and Smitha Gundavajhala. Alissa is a rising senior at San Francisco State University where she is double majoring in Communications and Criminal Justice. She volunteered with Peer Health Exchange as a Health Educator, Co-Coordinator and Leadership Council Member. Smitha graduated from the University of California—Berkeley where she studied Public Health. While there, she served as a Senior Health Educator and contributed to volunteer relations on campus as a Community Relations Coordinator.

Earlier this month, we were fortunate to bring these two together to hear about their workshop experiences.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PHE MODEL WORKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE?

Smitha Gundavajhala: One of the things I saw happen during my time with PHE is a shift from a really content-heavy curriculum. This is really key in bringing in young people as partners in working towards creating this health education that is for them with them. When they go on to make decisions about their health beyond PHE, it has a lasting impact in shaping the agency that young people have.

Alissa Stauffer: With the PHE model, it works well with young people because we present so many scenarios for students of all types to be engaged. It’s a very flexible way of educating the students; it can work for visual learners and hands-on learners.

TELL US ABOUT A TIME THAT YOU MADE A CONNECTION WITH A YOUNG PERSON IN THE CLASSROOM.

AS: I made a connection with a student that would sit in the back, was very withdrawn and never opened her workbook. I was able to build a connection with her by showing her that I actually cared about her. I’d ask about her personal life and what she likes to do outside of school, use her name, spend time with her, and remember these facts about her every time she came in.

 Over a couple of workshops, there was a complete change. She was more engaged, she became one of the students that spoke the most by the end of the workshops. She would stay a little bit afterwards when the workshops were over to chat. I was able to use the skills that PHE helped me developed to bring her out of her shell and show that it’s a safe, fun environment.

TELL US ABOUT A TIME THAT YOU FELT LIKE IT MATTERED THAT YOU WERE THE ONE IN THE CLASSROOM.

SG: I was teaching a workshop about accessing resources [that discusses] how to make an appointment at a clinic and how to get there. I presented a scenario in which a young person with mental health challenges wants to make an appointment to see a clinician but we know that their dad would disapprove. At this point, there was a little bit of discomfort, which is fair because it’s not an easy situation.

I shared my own story with mental health; I had to overcome cultural barriers as a South-Asian American. It was hard for my family to understand exactly what mental health was and they took it personally. I had to seek out treatment on my own. If you don’t get support when you need it, it can become more serious in the future. Those kinds of conversations break down the stigma. Learning those communications skills can come in handy for young people, and I’m proud that I was able to use my own experience to apply the lesson.

TELL ME ABOUT A TIME THAT A YOUNG PERSON SHARED SOMETHING THAT MADE YOU THINK THEY WOULD MAKE A HEALTHY DECISION. HOW DID THAT FEEL TO YOU AS A VOLUNTEER?

AS: I asked the class a question to refocus their energy. I asked the classroom “what do you need before two people can engage in sexual activity?” Everyone looked around, sort of nervous to answer and then I prompted, “It begins with the letter ‘C’.” Seriously, all of their eyes lit up and there was a huge eruption of young people shouting out, “Condoms!” “Consent!” “Consequences!” “Caring!”

That made me realize how much they understood the material. In that moment, I could see how fun the material is.

20 YEARS FROM NOW, WHAT WILL YOU REMEMBER MOST ABOUT PHE? WHAT CHANGE DO YOU HOPE YOU’VE MADE IN THE WORLD BY THEN, IN PART BECAUSE OF YOUR TIME WITH PHE?

AS: PHE has helped me identify my individual strengths. I used to think that I could come off negative, aggressive, and bossy so I was try to suppress those traits. Through PHE, I really came into my own and channeled those characteristics. My management and communications skills, persistence, and confidence can be put to use in the work that I want to do and what I want to accomplish.

I will look back on the training which opened my eyes to issues that I thought I was well-informed about but wasn’t. Just better understanding power, privilege, and oppression fuels me to make change and impact more people. It pushes me to achieve more in the future and center my life around those goals.

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