On campus, a group of UAB Community Health and Human Services majors and other volunteers are teaching their fellow classmates how to stay healthy and well.

The students are all peer educators through the UAB Student Health and Wellness Center. Throughout the academic year, the group hosts interactive events and shares information with other students on how to prevent and find help for a range of health issues, from sexually transmitted diseases and tobacco use to mental health crises.

Peer Educators

“There’s some research that says the peer educator actually learns the most and not the student they’re educating,” says UAB Associate Professor Laura Forbes, Ph.D., MCHES, the group’s advisor. “Peer educators not only learn how to present on a variety of health topics and the content of the presentations, but they also learn how others view personal health and wellness. The peer educators also gain confidence, self-efficacy and develop skills transferable to the professional arena as part of this experience.”

The Peer Educators organization started back in 2014 soon after M. Jacob Baggott, MLS, — UAB’s current assistant vice president of Student Development, Health & Wellness — joined the university as the Student Health and Wellness Center’s executive director. He soon contacted Forbes, an expert on issues related to college student health education and prevention, to help establish a peer educators program.

During the 2014-2015 academic year, the Center provided her with funding to establish a peer education program in 2014. After several semesters of recruiting volunteers and teaching a for-credit course, CHHS 491/693 Student Health and Wellness Center Peer Educators, the student group grew in size and scope, Forbes says. By the following year in 2015, the group became a registered student organization on campus.

Today, students can obtain training to be a peer educator by enrolling in Community Health and Human Services (CHHS) 491 or 693 for three credit hours.

“All majors are welcome,” says Forbes. “It doesn’t matter. So if someone wants to volunteer and be a peer educator and go through the training, they can. There are nine modules and an online certification that we would like for them to complete, and we can teach non-health majors how to do an outreach table and how to approach the community about a health issue through some training or they can take the course for credit.

“This semester, for the first time in the class, I have non-health education students starting to enroll because it’s open to any major,” says Forbes. “So I’m seeing a shift in enrollment, and it indicates that UAB students are passionate about their health and the health and well-being of others.”

The course presents students with an introduction to the programs and services offered by the UAB Student Health and Wellness Center. The students are then taught how to deliver health-related presentations and organize a population-based marketing campaign. They also learn about disease prevention and prevention strategies while sharpening their skills in public speaking and gaining an overview on leadership, ethics and audience engagement.

UAB senior Angelica Lyons, who is president of the UAB Student Health and Wellness Center Peer Educators, says participating in the student organization has been invaluable for her as a student studying community health.

“Through the class,” says Lyons, “I’ve learned how to organize and prepare presentations and workshops,” she says. “One of the biggest things we started out with is making sure we know our audience. I got to teach 5th graders at EPIC School about bullying last year, and I prepared the material myself.”

Lyons says her time as a peer educator and the course have played major roles in her decision to pursue a master’s degree in the UAB School of Education’s Counselor Education Program after she completes her undergraduate degree in December 2016.

“I feel like it’s really given me hands-on experience,” she says. “I’ve had people to come up to me and say, ‘I hate myself.’ Being able to direct them to the right services and helping them gain more information and being a great resource person, I know that when I get this degree, I’ll already know how to handle people as far as helping them.”

In addition to the course and the campus activities, some peer educators are helping Forbes collect data on student health habits, behaviors and perceptions via a health survey known as the National College Health Assessment II. She says she will share the information she collects from the assessment with university administrators with the intent to develop enhanced student health program and outreach activities.

“It has really provided an opportunity for Community Health and Human Services students to get involved with and become immersed in specific health and wellness issues at the heart of their major.”