Peer Health Exchange: Smarter choices, safer behaviors

Fourteen-year-olds have lots of questions about their personal health, and don’t necessarily want to ask adults.  And many ninth-graders attend schools in communities that can’t afford “extras” like physical education and health classes. Even when some health education is available, it may not speak to the students’ cultures or backgrounds. Youth with disabilities or who identify as LBGTQ, are even more vulnerable. So teens tend to seek guidance and information from people they trust—their friends. Too often, shared misinformation leads to poor choices and poorer health. 

But there’s help available.  Peer Health Exchange (PHE), a nonprofit health education program, offers targeted, innovative solutions to bridge this critical knowledge gap. 

PHE’s success is due to its unique partnership model—providing under-funded high schools with college student mentors as teachers. The program selectively recruits volunteers who are highly motivated to enjoy the challenges and satisfactions of working with young people.  Then they are rigorously trained.  While older teachers may struggle to connect with teens on difficult personal issues, college-age “near peers” can create a powerful environment of understanding and openness in workshops that encourage honest dialogue. 

In our own backyard

Founded 25 years ago, PHE has established centers in six cities nationwide, including Boston since 2006. Partnering with 17 high schools, PHE provides a certified health curriculum covering sexuality and sexual health, substance abuse prevention, and mental health. More than 3,000 students annually complete the 14-week course, guided by volunteers from Boston University, Harvard, Northeastern, and Tufts. Together, they accomplish an essential educational goal—arming teens with skills and knowledge to help them succeed in high school and beyond. Equally important, the students receive an introduction to a local college or community health center.  Even the most independent-minded teens can learn how to reach out to adult advisors and clinicians when needed. “Many kids live life keeping their issues to themselves,” says one PHE student. “PHE opens you up to different clinics and counselors you can talk to and access information. Some people need that push.”

Listening and learning –a two-way street

“Our college volunteers are close enough in age to earn high-schoolers’ trust and willingness to listen,” says Uchenna Ndulue, executive director of PHE Boston. “We’ve seen amazing levels of classroom engagement between the adolescents and the young adults—they’re learning and sharing together in a welcoming space. It gives the high school kids role models they can relate to and emulate. Sometimes the idea of going to college is pretty abstract for ninth-graders, especially if no one in their family has gone.  But working with a college student mentor makes the goal more tangible.  And the ‘exchange’ part of our organization means the college students benefit as well. They gain teaching skills and public health knowledge as well as the joy of making a difference in young lives.” 

PHE Boston’s current goal is to expand diversity among the student volunteers to better reflect the Boston public schools population.  Recent support from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health will help achieve that by adding the University of Massachusetts Boston campus to PHE’s university partners. “We’ll have a great opportunity to make the teen/college student dynamic even stronger,” says Ndulue. “Recruiting college students who are even more relatable to our ninth graders will help boost PHE effectiveness—not  just by imparting health education, but increasing students’ motivation to use what they learn.”  

He adds, “Boston high school graduates who go on to college tend to choose UMass Boston. It’s a satisfying full circle when one of our PHE graduates becomes a college volunteer and can give back. Including UMass Boston in our university partnerships increases that wonderful possibility!”