Peer Health Educators Promote Holistic Wellbeing on Campus

Scripps’ health and wellness events are often creative and unexpected—they’ve included DIY Zen gardening, slime-making (it’s remarkably relaxing to play with), and baking black-bean brownies.

That’s why it was no surprise when some unconventional guests arrived on campus on a recent Friday in April: one Shih Tzu, a spaniel mix, and a Bouvier de Flanders. These were no ordinary dogs—they were professionals, members of an elite group of therapy dogs from Pet Partners invited to Scripps to help students de-stress as finals week moved into full swing. Studies have shown that petting and playing with dogs can increase the human’s—and the dog’s—level of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin as well as lower heart rate and blood pressure. “The Sallie Tiernan Field House (TFH) is committed to giving students the resources to develop every aspect of personal wellness,” says Deborah Gisvold, assistant dean and TFH director. As part of that commitment, Gisvold and the Division of Student Affairs staff established the Peer Health Educators (PHE) Program in 2014. A team of Scripps students tasked with developing programming and engaging in peer-to-peer coaching, PHEs cultivate holistic well-being on campus in fun and surprising ways. The therapy dogs’ visit in April was part of Be Well Fridays, a series of monthly events run by the TFH health and wellness staff and PHEs. The PHEs also host De-Stress Thursdays, Tasty Tuesdays, and a signature event, Chest Casting, in which students apply papier-mâché to their bodies to create molds of their torsos. This annual event is “an artistic expression of body positivity,” explains Gisvold. It was started during the program’s first year by Helen Thomason ’18, who played an active role in promoting body positivitywhile a PHE, including serving on the 5C Eating Disorder Task Force.
“Well-being is not a one-size-fits-all approach to health,” says Deborah Gisvold, assistant dean and TFH director.
“Health and wellness trickles into most aspects of life, especially life as a student,” Thomason reflects. “Students should have access to the health and wellness resources they need to focus on their aspirations.” In addition to these wellness programs, PHEs also provide students with resources for professional help with mental health, addiction, or other issues. “Over the past few years, we have had a big push on mental health, so we have responded by having more training on being a gatekeeper—a person whose role it is to provide additional resources to an individual coping with their pain,” explains Jen Shipley, assistant director for student health and wellness at TFH, who has been overseeing the PHE program.“We really want our PHEs to learn how to refer peers to the right resources. They aren’t counselors, but they can help their peers find the resources they need.” PHE programs have been cropping up on college campuses as part of a nationwide trend toward holistic wellness, which shifts the idea of health from just physical fitness to eight “domains”: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual. According to Gisvold, one of the reasons PHEs are so effective is because students tend to relate well to one another: “Hearing from a peer versus someone in an authority position can go over much better.” But the PHE program doesn’t just benefit the student body, it benefits the PHEs themselves. Intensive and continuing training gives them a deep and varied skill set, and some end up pursuing careers in medicine and public health. Such is the case for Thomason, who has been employed as a patient advocate at a health insurance technology start-up in San Francisco and is applying to medical school this spring. To earn the title Peer Health Educator, new recruits go through certified peer-educator training, participate in training modules for how to plan an event and learn effective listening skills, and attend the Laspa Center for Leadership’s annual Student Leadership Institute. PHEs also attend trainings throughout the academic year, like bystander engagement training for how to identify power-based personal violence and other trainings for how to recognize peers in distress. In addition to being game for a rigorous schedule of trainings and professional development, Gisvold says that what really sets PHEs apart is their personal commitment to and embodiment of wellness. “First and foremost, PHEs need to have a personal dedication to holistic wellness. They have to really buy into that lifestyle and the behaviors that support it. They can’t just talk the talk, they have to walk the walk. They need to be analytic and know how to find sources and do scholarly research, know how to disseminate information and be good communicators, they need to be approachable, and they need to represent our community as good role models,” she says.
Emma Ambler ’20 (right) pours chia parfaits at a recent Peer Health Educator “Tasty Tuesdays” healthy cooking event.
PHE Emma Ambler ’20’s passion for nutrition and community connection was on full display at a recent Tasty Tuesdays event, part of a PHE series dedicated to promoting wellness through nutrition. “Tasty Tuesdays is a group cooking activity where the idea is to find healthy recipes, talk about what each ingredient is doing, like healthy fats in avocado, while also being an education in cooking for yourself,” explains Ambler, who is majoring in English. “Eventually, I want to be a teacher, and this is great practice for having that leadership role and sharing information.” The night’s recipe was chia pudding parfait, which Ambler selected based on the chia seed’s purported health benefits of stress-reducing magnesium and digestion-aiding fiber. Within minutes of beginning, the TFH kitchen was full of students mixing almond milk with chia seeds, using the blender, expertly chopping cucumbers, and sneaking tastes as they went (“for research purposes!” said one student, laughing). The students’ reasons for coming were as varied as the fruits and veggies being pureed; one student said she had been feeling “run down,” another said that chia pudding felt “healthy and special,” and a third admitted that she was driven by honest-to-goodness hunger. “Women have, traditionally, been raised to nurture others,” explained Ambler as she poured layers of blended fruits and veggies into mason jars. “As Peer Health Educators, we have an amazing opportunity at Scripps, where so many students are women-identifying, to start to shift the focus to also nurturing ourselves and making fitness and wellness not just code words for weight loss, but about feeling good and being well.” Being well, in mind and body, is what drives Lexy Mitchner ’21 in her role as a PHE. The psychology major, who plans to go into clinical work focusing on addiction and counseling, says that directing students to resources, such as The Claremont Colleges’ Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services, and promoting sexual health are the most rewarding aspects of her job. At her Friday lunchtime post at a table in Seal Court, she can usually be found handing out information about campus counseling and about STIs, substance abuse, and nutrition. She also helps facilitate Condom Canary, a free subscription service for safe-sex supplies and education. “I really like providing my peers with information, but I especially love that I get the chance to give them materials. We recently did a de-stress kit that included colored pencils, relaxation information, earplugs, Play-Doh, and a Scripps coloring book. We also had a spring break kit that included sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and information on sun safety and hydration, safe drinking, and sleep tips,” Mitchner says. “Well-being is not a one-size-fits-all approach to health,” says Gisvold. “At the Field House and through the PHE program, we aim to give each individual tools and skills to apply now and throughout their lifetime. This is a critical community initiative on campus, because if you don’t have well-being, you likely don’t have academic success. Wellness feeds success for a lifetime.” “The Field House really does feel like the cornerstone of Scripps,” Ambler says. “Not only because of the beauty of the facility—it’s also where the best programming happens.” Adds Mitchner: “It’s just a hub of wellness.”