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Supporting Students

By Tiffany Westry-Womack

pwa logoLaunched in 2018, the UAB Peer Wellness Ambassador Program is a lifeline for students dealing with the everyday stressors of college life. Peer Wellness Ambassadors (PWA) are a committed group of students trained to support first-year students living in residence halls by engaging them with a variety of mental health and wellness programming and connecting them to additional resources available on campus.

“Each academic year, we typically select 15 to 17 Peer Wellness Ambassadors,” said Brian Johnson, Director of Housing and Residence Life. The group is a mix of first-year students and upperclassmen. The program offers benefits to students on both sides. The PWAs develop practical leadership, management skills, and communication and counseling techniques. At the same time, other students get the emotional support they need from a trained peer.”

Supported by several university resources, PWAs are required to go through Certified Peer Educator (CPE) training. CPE is a comprehensive, 12-hour foundation training provided by UAB Wellness Promotion. The training helps peer educators develop leadership skills to implement effective campus programs. They also take part in mental health-related training sessions with Resident Assistants.

Throughout the academic year, PWAs host a number of residence hall programs to help foster a healthy environment. The programs focus on topics such as self-improvement, stress management, goal setting, sexual health, and alcohol safety. The pandemic presented its own set of challenges for students and the program itself.

“The program was completely remote at the beginning of the pandemic,” Johnson said. “Not being able to connect in person presented some challenges with establishing and maintaining strong connections between students. During that time, no first-year PWAs were hired. We kept upperclassmen on staff and leaned on them to provide remote support.”

As the pandemic stabilized, the university slowly resumed usual operations, first with hybrid instruction and then reopening for in-person classes in the spring of 2021. PWAs and other mental health support staff were able to re-engage with students on campus. They observed a high level of stress among them. Johnson says this is understandable and expected as students continue to navigate life through a global pandemic. Awareness of how students are doing is a positive thing.

“I think about when I was an undergraduate,” Johnson said. “At the time, mental health wasn’t a national conversation. Today, the stigma around talking about and seeking help for emotional distress has decreased. There is a lot of information about mental health and wellness available, and students have really leaned into getting support. Especially among Generation Z, they are much more willing to share that they are not doing well, talk about their stressors, and seek help.”

Next year, UAB Student Housing and Residence Life, in collaboration with Student Counseling Services, plans to introduce a peer chat line to provide additional support for on-campus students. Upper-class PWAs will serve as peer coaches and staff the phone line.