Zoe Sakas – Essay Contest Winner

Published on July 22nd, 2016

Zoe Sakas

Zoe Sakas, Fordham University, 2016

Saying that Peer Health Exchange has shaped my undergraduate experience would be understating how influential this organization has been to me. I came to Fordham as a pre-med student who wanted to change the world somehow. At the time, I thought the best way to make a difference was to become a doctor. I wanted to heal those who were suffering, and to dedicate my life to improving the lives of others. I wasn’t sure of exactly how to do that, but I was very passionate about my mission nonetheless.

I joined PHE freshman year because I was looking for a way to volunteer in the Bronx community, loved working with kids, and was excited about all things health and science related. I figured it would be a fun experience and a good way to make friends. However, I didn’t really understand at the time what I was becoming a part of. My first semester with PHE, I was assigned to teach about nutrition and physical activity. Easy, I thought. Many of the volunteers were teaching about difficult and uncomfortable subjects like sex and drugs, but nutrition and physical activity I thought would be relatively straightforward. What I encountered in the classroom, though, was not at all what I was expecting. It amazed me how many teenagers thought that Pop Tarts were a healthy breakfast choice, and that Arizona iced tea was much healthier than soda. Most students thought healthy foods like fruit and peanut butter shouldn’t be eaten often because of high levels of sugar and fat.

All of a sudden I realized how important teaching these high school students was. I felt responsible for their wellbeing and their health. By the end of the year, I taught hundreds of students how to eat well and exercise. I began to see how these seemingly simple lessons could impact a young person in such big ways. Obesity can lead to low self-esteem, which will result in a myriad of negative feelings and experiences. I talked with the students about their goals, and many of them realized how not eating well might impact their chances of accomplishing these goals. In the years following, I have taught about mental health, sex, alcohol and marijuana use. The new skills-based curriculum has allowed me to engage in meaningful conversations with the students, and I have noticed that many students really appreciate and enjoy PHE. To a high school freshman, there is nothing more important, and confusing, than the health topics PHE focuses on. The decisions they make about their health create a ripple effect of positive and negative consequences that shape their future experiences and opportunities, and can greatly affect their ability to achieve their goals.

I was forced to confront a privilege that I had not recognized before – the privilege to know how to maintain and improve my health. I have always seen health as the foundation for everything else in life. Happiness and success are much easier to attain when an individual has the resources to support their physical and mental health. Preventable health issues, like obesity, heart disease, STD’s, lung cancer, injuries from risky behavior, liver disease, and more, affect the majority of the population in the United States. Health education is a huge part of this growing problem. If at 14-years-old a teenager does not know that STD’s can be transmitted by oral sex, or that alcohol use comes with long term effects, or that Pop Tarts don’t have all the nutrients you need for breakfast, then they are at a much greater risk of making decisions that they might regret in the future.

Realizing how much of an impact health education can have on the futures of these teenagers has been what has drawn me to the field of public health. Before working with PHE, I wasn’t aware of how dramatically social determinants can impact health. PHE is such a great organization because it gives the students all the knowledge and resources they need to make whatever decisions they feel are best for them. It does not stigmatize certain decisions or behaviors, like teaching abstinence from sex and drugs might, but instead empowers teenagers to take their health into their own hands, which I believe every person should have the right to do. PHE supports the idea that health education should be considered a necessity rather than a privilege, a concept that when put into practice can change the lives of thousands of underprivileged teenagers.

After spending three years taking pre-med classes, I finally came to the conclusion last summer that becoming a doctor is not the right career choice for me. I am a senior now, graduating in just a few weeks, and I am more excited than I can put into words to start a masters program in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine this coming September. PHE has brought me one step closer to achieving my goal of changing the world for the better. It has helped me realize how important it is to recognize the social determinants of health, and work to change them through influencing policy and practice, conducting research, and providing education and resources to those who need them most.

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