I have been interested in health education since I began tenth grade. I spent the next three years of high school volunteering with my school’s chapter of Mentors in Violence Prevention. As a Mentor, I taught 8th graders to think critically about gender stereotypes and take an active role in preventing gender violence. From those early lessons, I realized how health education can bring to the surface conversations about the most vital and pressing issues in students’ daily lives.
In college, I volunteered as a health educator in the New York City public schools through Peer Health Exchange. I saw the transformation of ninth graders as they received basic health education. When our program started, they lacked basic information about how to care for themselves and their relationships. As they enthusiastically engaged with the lessons we taught, however, they reported change in their attitudes and their behavior. Students expressed the results of feeling empowered, whether through a vow to stop the cycle of teen pregnancy in their families or through more daily decisions to stop drinking soda.
Meanwhile, in my health education work on campus at Columbia University, I saw what happened to otherwise bright and aware people who had not received comprehensive health education as child or teenager. I worked with college students getting tested for HIV, often anxious and ashamed but unaware of the specifics of HIV transmission. In teaching incoming freshman about consent and sexual assault prevention, I encountered a plethora of young adults who could not talk about their bodies, neither with friends nor with partners. As a result, they suffered from heartbreak, violence and disease.
Health education is a basic tool to protect youth from a plethora of epidemics spanning obesity, sexual violence and HIV. But health education is also much more than that– it is a path through which to develop healthier, happier students and learning communities. As I taught health education full-time these past two years, my students developed basic social and emotional skills that immediately began to help them manage their emotions, relate positively to each other, and engage with their schoolwork. They brought to class many current, pressing issues in their lives, whether related to conflicts with friends, changes in their bodies, or concerns about their schoolwork and stress levels. In these ways, I saw the health education is a crucial part of helping a school become a positive and productive learning community.
When a health learning community thrives, it has the power to transform much more than just itself. Through our discussions in health class, my students became inspired to take a stand on issues, express themselves, and spearhead community service projects. For these reasons and others, my experience engaging in and reflecting on health education for nine years and has inspired me to pursue this path for many, many more.