Friday, September 13, 2013

Why Peer Education Works: A Success Story From Western Michigan University

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to sexual health. The distribution of correct medical information is essential in reducing HIV transmission, dismantling stigma, and ending discrimination. In the war against HIV/AIDS, education is the best ammunition. Progressive universities around the nation recognize this secret weapon and have developed programs designed to equip their students with the tools necessary to make well informed decisions.

Ranked number 11 in the country, Western Michigan University’s sexual health program stands out among the rest! Here’s why…

WMU employs a unique and highly effective teaching tool: peer education. Think back to the last time you had to relay the all-too-personal details of your love life to a medical professional. Not too comfortable was it? Students at Western Michigan University don’t have to worry about that! They have the opportunity to go their peers with sexual health concerns before consulting a doctor. 

Anthony Spychalski promoting condom use!
Anthony Spychalski, a current peer educator and bona fide "sexpert" at Western Michigan, answers a few of our questions about his experiences with this unique teaching strategy:

1. What inspired you to become a peer educator?
I remember one night during my freshman year when my two friends were helping a friend of theirs who had been raped. They were so knowledgeable on where to find help and took their certification so seriously. I just remember they kept saying, “We’re peer educators.” After that night I took it upon myself to get involved. I wanted to help like my friends did, I wanted to have resources like they did, and I wanted to be a part of making our community a better place. I love sex, hate how it’s such a “taboo” topic, and want to go and tell everyone that it’s a normal natural part of being a human being. On top of that, I’m going to inform you about every STI, symptom’s, ways of contraction, protection and barrier methods, and overall ways to not only protect yourself but also as many sexual partners as you choose to have.

2) Do you find that a lot of students are the victims of misinformation? What are some of the biggest “myths”circulating on your campus?
OH YES!! Students are huge victims of misinformation! It is one of our big goals as peer educators to eliminate these myths. Some reoccurring ones we constantly hear include:
  • During sex, if the girl is on top, she won’t get pregnant.
  • If you have sex in a hot tub, she won’t get pregnant.
  • Sex in front of a microwave kills sperm.
  • Douching with vodka skills sperm. (Do not attempt!)
  • If the girl is on her period she won’t get pregnant.
These are all FALSE! Please, if you hear myths like this, do not pass it on, and check your sources before passing on any medical information.

3) Here at the Stigma Action Network, we focus a great deal on stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV. Do you deal with students who hold stigmatizing opinions about HIV and other STDs?
 During the time when Peer Educators are presenting STI information, it is very common to see scared, nervous, or even grossed out expressions in the crowd.  I believe the biggest fears students have is that they may have caught an STI and not know it, seeing as lot of the time symptoms are asymptomatic. We explain and stress the importance of getting tested every 3 months for this reason. I believe once the student has been informed of the risks with STI's and HIV, they are equally concerned with the health risks and social implications. With the contraction of an STI, especially a viral infection that is not curable (Genital Herpes for example), comes the social stigmatism that students fear. We stress as peer educators that regardless of what you have contracted, you can still live a completely happy and normal life.

4) Do you think students are more receptive to information if it is provided by one of their peers?
I think students are MUCH more receptive to information if it is provided by one of their peers or someone that is their same age. Having a stranger come into a large room and pull out condoms, talk about penis and vagina, and how easily they can become infected is not something people are very comfortable with (unfortunately). With us, it’s a much more fluid and laid-back conversation instead of a bunch of questions and statements about your medical history. This makes the short relationship much more cozy, so to say. Students don’t seem to be as afraid to tell me things they would normally be more fearful to tell their doctors. I’m simply there to offer advice, provide resources, and contact professionals more certified then myself if wanted, or in the extreme circumstance, needed.

Want more information on WMU's peer education program?

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