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Volunteers prepare to teach health to Oakland high school students

Times of economic crisis have led many California school districts to cut health education courses from public high schools, and Oakland is no exception.

Ninth graders at several Oakland high schools, including Youth Empowerment, Unity and Skyline, would have been without a health education class if it weren’t for the Peer Health Exchange (PHE) program, according to Mills College junior Dalia Cuenca, a PHE co-coordinator. The program aims to fill the void by providing health education by and for young people.

Student volunteers at their first Peer Health Exchange meeting of the year. (Lauren Sliter)
Student volunteers at their first Peer Health Exchange meeting of the year. (Lauren Sliter)

PHE, now beginning its sixth year in existence and its second year at Mills, trains students at participating colleges to teach one of 10 different curriculums including alcohol and drug addiction, contraceptive and sex education, abusive relationship awareness, nutrition and physical education.

Campus PHE members met recently with the local director of PHE, Nathan Hood, as he informed the group about PHE’s larger national goals. Currently PHE educates 11,000 students nationwide, 1,700 in the bay area, and Mills students alone teach 350 local high schoolers.

Dalia Cuenca and Isis Blanchette, co-coordinators of the Peer Health Exchange. (Lauren Sliter)
Dalia Cuenca and Isis Blanchette, co-coordinators of the Peer Health Exchange. (Lauren Sliter)

“We hope to reach 100,000 public school students in the next five years,” said Hood. The members at Mills hope to visit more high schools this year and in the years to come as its membership continues to grow and more people take notice of the work being put into the program.

The PHE offers health education beyond what a book can offer, said Bianca Louie, a Mills sophomore who has been a member of the program for two years and is now training other volunteers. Volunteers learn as they go, but are required to go through extensive training before they begin their high school presentations.

Many volunteers believe the program offers college students a chance to experience the ups and downs of the public education system.

“We’re learning how the teachers feel,” said Cuenca, referring to the challenge of working in classrooms where students “don’t necessarily respect their teachers.”

Nathan Hood, local director of PHE. (Lauren Sliter)
Nathan Hood, local director of PHE. (Lauren Sliter)

Though the teachers are present during each class, some volunteers find that it’s not always easy to keep control of a class that does not wish to learn.

“You never know at that moment if they are learning or even care,” Cuenca explained. “It wasn’t a bad experience. It was challenging.”

Despite the difficulties Louie and Cuenca have sometimes faced during their presentations, these Peer Health Exchange volunteers still feel fulfilled.

“I feel like I really am making a difference,” said Cuenca. She described the moment that made her realize that her work with Peer Health Exchange was worthwhile. After finishing the last workshop with her class, Cuenca asked the students if they had any questions. One student raised her hand to thank the volunteers for their hard work and the time spent with her and her class.

“It melted my heart,” Cuenca said.

The PHE will begin teaching high school classes this semester at the end of October. Until then, they are working hard to train new volunteers and to organize their curricula for the upcoming year.