A nearly 5-foot-long cigarette, smoke wafting from one end, beckoned passers by to a booth in the Memorial Union Quad last May. Though a canopy and informational materials were set up as well, Alice Atsma says it was the cigarette — “lit” with dry ice — that attracted people to the booth where she waited for them to approach.
Atsma was volunteering with Peer Health Advocates at a tobacco awareness booth that she and other students in the group had created. Having joined the group only a few months prior, this was Atsma’s first PHA event where she would interact with the public, and she was nervous.
“Very nervous,” Atsma says. “I didn’t know what to say or if I could teach them anything.”
As a pre-physical therapy student at Oregon State University, Atsma was always motivated to reach her career goals in health care, but struggled to envision health as a functioning concept outside of textbooks. She had doubts about whether she could really contribute to campus health with brochures, packs of gum and whatever knowledge she’d retained from her health classes.
As she spoke to those who visited the booth and realized she was able to answer their questions and explain how smoking affects the respiratory and cardiovascular systems in a way that was both informative and accessible, Atsma says she began to understand the blend of outreach and communication behind public health, and how she could put it to use — as a student and in a future career.
PHA is a group of students working to promote health and wellness on campus. The group is directed by health educator Stacey Edwards and operates through Student Health Services. Students of any major can join the group after taking Public Health 349, a training course taught by Edwards that all volunteers are required to complete.
Around 30 students usually work with PHA each term, Edwards says. Those students are divided into task forces that tackle health topics of particular significance for college students, such as alcohol, tobacco and sleep. Student coordinators lead their task forces in planning to address their topic, creating and executing events and evaluating whether those events were effective in educating students.
Atsma’s tobacco awareness booth is just one example of how PHA demonstrations use trivia and prizes to attract students and provide them with important health knowledge, as well information about resources on campus where they can learn more. Last year, PHA also held a “Busting the Myth on Sleep” event where volunteers answered students’ questions, quizzed them on myths about how activities like exercising and consuming alcohol affect sleep and gave away free sleep packages including a sleeping mask, herbal tea and cards with facts about sleep. Another event at a new student picnic had PHA student coordinator Alexander Pearson dressed in a Trojan condom suit to raise awareness about sexual health.
“After that, knowing that I could get through talking to students about sexual health while dressed as a condom, I knew I could stand up and talk to any student about any subject,” Pearson says.
While PHA events serve to benefit the campus and educate students, Edwards says participating in PHA allows student volunteers to learn about the careers they are working toward and gain experience in the public health field. Though Edwards directs the group, responsibility for making sure events move forward and are successful, she says, falls entirely on the students.
“They build their own success,” Edwards says. “They have to learn how to be very adaptable, and that I think is more of a learning experience for them versus the classroom structure because they have to deal with that in real life. This is a nice environment to do that because it allows for mistakes and for learning.”
Atsma plans to pursue a career in physical therapy but says the learning experience of being involved with PHA has inspired her to expand her goals to include in health promotion as well. Communicating with students about health and organizing events to spread awareness, Atsma says, gave her the opportunity to test drive a career in public health while practicing the skills she’ll need to succeed in the field.
“In PHA you have to create and plan events, and then you have to get everybody together to discuss what our goals are for the event and make sure it happens,” Atsma says. “You learn about teamwork and responsibility.”
Edwards says allowing students to take full responsibility for their group’s outreach also sets them apart from others as they begin their careers.
“Looking at what employers want from their graduates, what they feel they’re not getting is that real-life experience where you know how to set up a meeting, take minutes, do research, and that’s what we do in PHA,” Edwards says. “I think if you can demonstrate real-life examples of things employers are looking for in a candidate, that works to your advantage greatly.”
Atsma says it’s being able to help others while learning as a PHA volunteer that makes all of her efforts worthwhile.
“I feel like I’m doing a small part to make OSU a better campus,” Atsma says. “I’m giving a small contribution through education. If I help one person, that’s great. That’s really all I need.”