Before working at Peer Health Exchange, I had heard of the organization frequently in conversation. A close friend completed her graduate school internship with PHE and often shared highlights from her experience in the classroom. Before the PHE model changed, a graduate school classmate had volunteered with Peer Health Exchange in college and often referenced that experience in class discussion and group projects. In the fall of 2021, I was working as a Sex Educator at a non-profit that mainly partnered with private schools. While I firmly believe that all young people have a right to health education, I struggled with classroom management in these schools, specifically students talking over each other in class discussions on topics related to power and privilege. I became disheartened by the student-to-student disrespect that I often observed.
At the start of my job search, I was reminded of the equity-centered health education work that is central to the mission of PHE. I was impressed by their commitment to working alongside young people, as opposed to a top-down approach that prioritizes the expertise of adults. Moreover, I appreciated that the curriculum integrates three health education topics (mental health, substance use, and sexual health) in a 10-week program that fosters relationships between the students, host teacher, and Fellow.
I started at Peer Health Exchange at the end of January, and my first day in the classroom was one week later. On that first day, as often happens, students were confused.“Who’re you?” “Why aren’t we in the gym?” “How long will you be here?” These are valid questions. But the first session of Pathways, the 10-week comprehensive health education curriculum, is an introduction. I introduce myself, usually with a few fun facts, and the students participate in a get-to-know-you activity with other classmates. The rest of the class is spent unpacking the concept of health.
Students often ease into participation in my classroom. Some are quick to participate in group discussions, while others only participate in small group conversations with their peers. Others prefer to reflect individually through writing or drawing. I encourage all forms of participation and never cold call or force participation in any way.
By the fourth week of the program, we begin a conversation on mental health. At this point, I’ve learned the students’ names, and the sports they play, extracurricular activities they participate in, and other fun facts that I’m lucky they chose to share with me. I make an effort to remember these. By showing students that I listen and remember, I build rapport with them. This makes the sexual health unit, a student favorite, much more successful. Students are often comfortable asking questions about body parts, sexual behaviors, terminology, contraception, etc. because we’ve spent time building trust over the last seven weeks. I’m honored every time a question takes us from the PowerPoint to a cascade of additional questions or when a student stays after class to ask me a personal question about their body or relationship.
My friends often question my decision to discuss taboo topics with high school students everyday. I usually remind them that “someone has to do it!” Peer Health Exchange has helped me remember how invaluable student-facilitator connections are in health education, and I’m glad that I can be that “someone.”