Senior Katherine Verrochi, left, and sophomore Amitha Ganti volunteer as health educators.
The Peer Health Educator program, part of Health Promotion and Prevention Services, began at USC more than 30 years ago, and although much has changed since then, the personal attention and connection remain the same.
“Students want to talk to a human being,” said Jennifer Attanasio, a staff health educator who has worked for Health Promotion and Prevention Services for 16 years. “They can get the information anywhere, but they want a kind face, an affirmation and a connection to someone else.”
Berit Elam, a senior health educator majoring in gender studies and international relations, agreed that “students will seek another student out before turning to the Internet to get the information they need.”
Although the program initially focused on peer advocacy and policy change, it now trains USC students as HIV rapid-testing counselors. Student clients meet with peer educators to learn more about HIV prior to receiving their HIV test results, which are available in approximately 30 minutes.
Subsidized by a grant, tests cost $20 to cover lab work.
Each peer educator also volunteers for two hours a week in the Resource Room, a cozy niche above the University Park Health Center where students may walk in to borrow books, pick up condoms or simply ask questions.
“We tell our students: ‘We’re not expecting you to be an expert, but we do expect that you are creating a non-judgmental atmosphere,’ ” Attanasio said.
Indeed, although a large number of the student educators are pre-med majors, the program also attracts students studying humanities, engineering and business. The program directors look for counselors with friendly enthusiasm, rather than medical expertise. In addition to drilling factual knowledge during training weekends, the staff also teaches counselors how to handle ranges of personalities and situations professionally and empathetically.
“It’s very much about skill-building, and how to interact with other people and show compassion,” said Tisha Armatys, a health educator staff member. “Being aware of different issues and people from different backgrounds can be useful in anything that health educators do outside of the program.”
For Elam, it is the necessity of good listening that makes the work sometimes difficult, but always rewarding.
“We’re trained to be listeners first,” she said. “So much trust is placed on us. We try to be as unselfish as possible and really give to the people who come in.”