Peer Wellness Educators bring attention to importance of holistic student health

Courtesy of Student Wellness Center

Lindsey Settle

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, “30 percent of students reported stress and 21 percent reported sleep difficulties negatively impacted their academic performance.”

Universities across the country are struggling to find solutions to these problems which arise due to the correlation between academic success and student wellness.

“Students report that of the top impediments to their academic success, all of them are health and wellness related,” said Student Wellness Manager Brian Vanderheyden.

In February 2017, Iowa State’s Student Wellness Center launched a new student wellness program to educate students and provide a means of outreach to university organizations through peer wellness educators.

“It’s pretty low in percentage of students seeking out and getting help,” Vanderheyden said about why the program focuses on preventative measures when helping students. The purpose behind the program is to get students the help they need.

Peer wellness educators are the bridge between students and their resources,” said Alondra Matos, senior in meteorology and peer wellness educator.

The role of peer wellness educators is to help students get connected with any of the health resources that are available on campus and to help students reach their next step of personal wellness.

Graduate assistant Meghann Kuhlman is also part of the team that runs the training program all peer wellness educators are required to complete prior to beginning their job with the Student Wellness Center. The two credit course covers topics like diversity, privilege, mental and physical health.

Peer wellness educators also come from all colleges on campus. The background area of study is irrelevant in the application process, but having certain personality traits is imperative.

“We definitely want somebody who likes making relationships with students, so we want students who like talking to people,” Kuhlman said.

However, Kuhlman explained they are not just looking for extroverted leaders who always want to be in charge; strong communication and empathy are critical components for becoming a peer wellness educator.

Less than one year since its creation, the program has done over 55 presentations and has trained 23 peer wellness educators. Currently, one of their main sources of outreach is the Be Well Hut. The hut circulates around various buildings on campus three times a week, and allows peer wellness educators to interact with students and promote health services. In addition, small groups of peer wellness educators visit greek chapters and classrooms to further educate students on well-being.  

Kuhlman describes this holistic health program as “keeping all dimensions of health in balance to be your best self.”

While the program’s focus is mental and physical wellness, the peer wellness educators are also taught to direct students to the Thielen Student Health Center if they are made aware of a serious issue. Both staff and peer wellness educators find there is an advantage to having students speak to other students.

“Peers listen to their peers more than they listen to their professors or doctors,” said Jade Gibson, peer wellness educator and senior in dietetics.

However, as Vanderheyden explained, helping one individual does not create solutions for all students at Iowa State. It also does not stop students from relapsing into the same health issue if the same impediments, like lack of sleep, insufficient exercise or stress, are still present in the student’s life.  

“Think of an oil spill in a lake,” Vanderheyden said. “A duck is stuck in that lake. Take the duck out and clean it. If you throw the duck back in, can it be successful?”