Peer Support

Peer Health Advocates

From March 2017

By Anne Hartman Raether

The UChicago Body Project’s hallmark workshop asks students a simple question: “What does an ideal body look like?”. In small groups, about 10 student participants discuss with peer leaders their thoughts on this query, and dive into further reflections about ideal standards, the cost of pursuing them, and the media’s influence on body image.

The Body Project is led by Health Promotion and Wellness’ Peer Health Advocates (PHA), a group of students who commit to helping their peers by empowering them to make healthy choices and connecting them to resources. About half of the PHAs lead the Body Project workshops, helping students to love and accept their bodies and openly discuss body image. The others are members of the InTouch group, who educate UChicago students about sexual health and healthy relationships.

The touchstone of any workshop delivered by a PHA is an interactive, productive discussion, one that’s made easier by the comfort of speaking with peers rather than staff or faculty, said Katrina Wagner, a Health Educator in Health Promotion and Wellness and the PHA advisor.

“There’s not this intimidation factor of staff members coming in and telling students what to do or what not to do,” Wagner said. “It’s what our students prefer,  and it’s been researched as a proven method and is widely used among many universities and colleges. It’s also beneficial for our Peer Health Advocates, because when they’re learning these tools to be healthier and to make smarter decisions, they’re becoming role models as well as resources for their peers. They can share important information about programming available at UChicago to improve their peers' health and wellness.”

Elly McCarthy, a second-year studying statistics and comparative human development, is the Body Project Student Coordinator and one of the thirteen PHAs who lead Body Project workshops. Along with discussing the ideal body standard the media promotes, PHAs aim to spark discussion among participants about their personal experiences with body image and how they can reduce body dissatisfaction. Students are also encouraged to share aspects of themselves they’re self-conscious about, as well as features they’re proud of.

“It’s empowering to have a space where you can be comfortable to discuss these issues with your peers,” McCarthy said. “I think oftentimes just starting the conversation is the biggest obstacle. Once you bring it up, students can leave the discussion and do research on their own or reflect more on it. It starts a ball rolling.”

The ten PHAs who lead InTouch workshops start a ball rolling on a different topic—guiding students to make well-informed choices regarding their relationships with others.

“Students come to this University with an incredibly broad range of prior knowledge and experiences when it comes to sexual health and healthy relationships,” said Madison Olmsted, the InTouch Student Coordinator and a third-year biology major. “I think every student has a right to clear, nonjudgmental, inclusive education on these topics.”

During the InterCourse Workshop, PHAs lead discussions on characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, consent, birth control, emergency contraceptives, and sexually transmitted infections.

After participating in the workshop, “students tell us that they feel more empowered to communicate openly with their partners, understand how to identify abusive behaviors, go to Student Health Service for birth control consultations, or try [different birth control methods],” Olmsted adds.

Any student group can request a workshop from the PHAs, who often host workshops for sororities and fraternities, RSOs, athletic teams, and within College Houses. Workshops open to all students are hosted about once a quarter.  

The PHAs are also looking to add passionate, diverse, and multicultural students to their team; recruitment begins in fall.

For McCarthy, the experience has led to enriching conversations, and the opportunity to see different perspectives.

“It’s the most meaningful when you’re having the discussion, and the group feels comfortable enough to really share their personal experiences and talk about things that are difficult to talk about,” McCarthy said. “Whether you were previously friends with the students or you’ve never met them before, you can connect on a topic that’s significant.”

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