Meet Nicole “Nico” Gusmán, a first year graduate student at the Yale School of Public Health Social Behavioral Sciences Department. Before pursing her in the Master’s of Public Health for social welfare, she volunteered with Peer Health Exchange during her undergraduate years at the University of California-Berkeley from 2009 to 2012. She went on to volunteer and work with AmeriCorps as a health educator. She wants to take what she learned and applied as a volunteer beyond the classroom to find population-based solutions, specifically to increase access to emergency contraceptives. Learn how Gusmán is using technology to reduce barriers for young people.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH PEER HEALTH EXCHANGE?
I found out about [PHE] around campus and I thought it sounded like a great idea. Health education was not really a part of my experience when I was going through high school and I knew that I was really interested in creating healthier and happier communities. I was studying social welfare at the time, so when I learned about the health education and peer education, I gave it a try and I loved it.
HOW DID PEER HEALTH EXCHANGE IMPACT YOUR ACADEMIC CAREER AND YOUR LIFE IN GENERAL?
I knew I wanted a career where I could help people live better lives and contribute something to make the world better. I never thought about health education as a way to do that until I learned about Peer Health Exchange and tried it out.
I loved teaching health education, especially sexual reproductive health education. After I graduated, I dabbled in different fields but nothing felt like anything I wanted to continue doing for a long time. Then I met up with a friend who had been a volunteer with me at Berkeley, and she encouraged me to become a health educator with AmeriCorps in the Bay area.
Now I’m getting my Master’s Degree at Yale to translate research into evidence-based interventions and create more sustainable program models around things like health education. PHE determined where I went with my social welfare degree.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR EMERGENY CONTRACEPTION PROJECT?
We’re creating a technology that’s hopefully going to help adolescents and transitional aged youth successfully access emergency contraceptives. The answer to the question, “where can I get emergency contraception” is different depending on your state of residence, your age, your sex, your confidentiality needs, how much money you have, your insurance, [etc].
When I was a Health Educator it would depend on different things like the time of the day or the day of the week, which free clinics were open and whether someone could get on a bus or had their own car. Even today, seeing the changes to the ACA and health insurance in the United States, the answer to the question might be scrambled for people. In addition to the barriers, there’s conscience clauses in some states that allow pharmacists to refuse to medication like emerging contraceptives based on their personal beliefs and not on medical or professional concerns.
When we’re thinking about teens, especially lower income teens, they have special barriers and considerations: limited transportation, little to no disposable income, age-based discrimination. That is coupled with limited experience dealing with medical institutions, insurance, and public programs on their own with little autonomy over their schedules.
We’re creating Easy EC, a solution for Android/iOS smartphones and/or a website that will look and operates as an application. After answering a few questions about their gender, age and location; we get people to the places where they can get emergency contraceptives based on their situation and even provide them with a script to make it as easy as possible.
We’re hoping to release it by next summer.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO HAVE ACCESS TO EMERGENCY CONTRACEPTION?
Despite the resources that we have in the United States, unintended pregnancy is still higher than other developed countries. Teen birth rates are also substantially higher. Reducing unintended pregnancies is a national public health issue, it’s a part of the Healthy People 2020 campaign because the health, social and economic benefits are well-documented.
If we’re looking at lowering the amount of unintended pregnancies, we’re not looking at the women using contraceptives consistently and correctly, we’re looking to the women who don’t have something like that in place. Teens tend to use less effective methods or inconsistently than adult women so it’s just really important that access to emergency contraceptives is easier for those women, especially teen women.
I loved PHE because it allowed me to be creative and interact with young people, and be challenged. I felt like I was actually contributing to making the world a better place. Health education was something that I not only enjoy, but that I was good at too. I’m studying so I can transition out of the classroom to more population-based issues. I took that experience beyond my undergraduate years because it’s something I really believe in and I think it’s important. I loved it!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO CURRENT VOLUNTEERS?
For current volunteers, I would say stay flexible and take care of yourself because burnout is a real thing. Remember the big picture, we’re in a classroom or working with peers, we’re planting seeds. Some of those seeds, you’ll see them immediately but there’s a lot of times where you’ll walk out like, ‘Did anyone understand, did they get something out of that workshop?’ There’s a good chance it’s going to help someone later on, they can pass the information onto a friend, it might help them in their own lives. Remember the big picture.