Peer Health Exchange: Teaching Students to Make Healthy Decisions

By Michelle Lee, UCSC Communications Intern

One in four teenagers is a binge-drinker. One in four teenagers smokes cigarettes. One in three teen girls becomes pregnant.

These statistics from the Peer Health Exchange website are alarming, yet many teenagers do not have access to the facts as pubic schools continue to eliminate health classes due to budget cuts and staff shortages. The result? Teenagers remain uninformed about important health issues, ranging from drugs and obesity to sexual health and domestic violence.

Teenagers are more likely to make healthy decisions if given the proper information and skills. That’s the idea and mission behind Peer Health Exchange, which Laura Ransin co-coordinates alongside Abby LaPier at the University of Chicago.

Peer Health Exchange is a national non-profit organization that promotes health education among high school and college students in major cities across the United States.

Ransin, a fourth-year student interested in public education, has been involved in the organization since her first year. “[Public education] is something that’s always fascinated me coming from a small rural area in Missouri,” she said. “Chicago is just a really exciting place to be.”

Peer Health Exchange aims not only to teach teenagers crucial knowledge and skills, but also to facilitate the relationship between public schools lacking health education and colleges that can fill the void. College volunteers teach a basic health curriculum and facilitate discussion among the students. More than that, they serve as role models and help promote a healthy transition from high school to college.

“It’s all about getting information out there,” Ransin said, adding that they want to educate others to “make their own decisions about health.”

Ransin said the organization is “very well-supported by the national level of the organization” and does not require much fundraising or campaigning on the students’ part. A full time staff resides in Chicago, as well as 2 program associates who manage the relationships between the Peer Health Exchange student groups and public schools.

Indeed, Peer Health Exchange extends far beyond the University of Chicago. “In Chicago we’re working with Northwestern, DePaul, and UIC,” said Ransin. “Each college works with about 4 or 5 high schools directly.”

The program has reached 4,550 high school students in Chicago this year alone.

The 11 different topics taught within the curriculum are Sexual Decision-Making, Pregnancy Prevention, STIs & HIV, Healthy Relationships, Abusive Relationships, Rape and Sexual Assault, Tobacco, Alcohol, Drugs, Nutrition & Physical Activity, and Mental Health. Every workshop covers one of those topics.“[There are] 88 teachers total [and] 8 teachers per workshop,” Ransin said of the University of Chicago group, with each workshop led by an experienced student teacher.

According to Ransin, as fun and rewarding as the program is, it is not easy. Groups teach in the winter and spring but meet every Thursday to practice their workshop, while new volunteers must undergo intense training.

Ransin further remarked, “A challenge I’ve witnessed is getting everybody to be focused in the same way.” The classes are all about “facilitating discussion,” she said. “Your best classroom is probably not going to be the silent one…. Once I had a few classes with a little bit of chatter…those were so much fun.”

Ultimately, Peer Health Exchange is a community effort based on dedication and team building. However, there is no doubt that the workshops have a resounding effect. “Nearly 94% of PHE high school students said they will use something they learned from PHE workshops to make a healthy decision in the future, and 61% of PHE high school students said they had already used something they learned from PHE workshops to make a healthy decision during the six months the program ran,” states the Peer Health Exchange website.

“I’m very confident that we’ll be able to teach the workshops we’ve planned for [and] have other volunteers be pleased that they took the chance to make the commitment,” Ransin said.

Learn more about and get involved with Peer Heath Exchange here.