By ZOE MORGAN
Wahington D.C. — As an education major, Rachel Wallace was interested when a friend mentioned a group called Peer Health Exchange, because it provided the opportunity to teach local high school students. However, over time she became passionate about providing the kind of sex education that she didn’t get the chance to receive in high school.
Wallace, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in education at American University, taught for two years as part of Peer Health Exchange, a program that sends college students into area high schools to give students the knowledge and skills needed to make decisions about their health.
“I got more and more passionate about it, especially as I remembered my sex education growing up, which was abysmal to nonexistent,” Wallace said.
In Texas, where Wallace grew up, her health classes never provided comprehensive information about sexual health. Other than a discussion of menstruation in fifth grade, a presentation on the dangers of sexually transmitted infections in middle school and general warnings to avoid sex altogether, Wallace said that there was no sex education provided.
Peer Health Exchange instead focused on giving students access to resources and information to help them make informed decisions. Rather than encouraging or discouraging sex, the program taught students how to make decisions for themselves.
“I always found that the kids, once they realized that you were there to actually talk about sex with them, they had questions and they wanted the answers,” Wallace said.
The weekly, 45 minute classes were largely taught to freshman in underserved D.C. area schools. Wallace would cover topics including how to set up an appointment at a clinic, how to determine whether a source of information is reliable, and where to find trustworthy resources. If the school had an onsite health clinic, Wallace would take students on a tour of the facility.
Although at first students would sometimes try to catch her off guard with uncomfortable or joking questions, over time she built a rapport with the students, and they would ask her more serious questions, Wallace said. Students came in with different levels of existing knowledge, and some didn’t know that using two condoms increases the risk of the condoms ripping, or that oral sex can transmit infections.
Back when she was in high school, Wallace said that she and her peers also didn’t know this kind of information. Some of her classmates made uninformed decisions and faced consequences like getting pregnant. If they had been given information about the potential risks that they faced, there might have been better outcomes, Wallace said.
“All around the country, we’re not giving kids this information even though it’s been proven in many, many, many studies that if you give kids this information and then you empower them to make these choices for themselves, they have less sex,” Wallace said.
Some of the schools had a separate required health class, but Wallace said that a lot didn’t. One moment she still thinks about is when a student asked whether she was paid or got credit for coming and teaching the classes. When she said that she didn’t, the student seemed surprised that an adult would choose to just come and help.
Wallace said that the program felt impactful because it was providing hundreds of students with basic information about how to make safe health-related decisions.
“They clearly started to understand some of the information and to internalize it,” Wallace said. “So that was really great to see, that we were hitting home and they were getting this really important information.”
Peer Health Exchange didn’t just cover sexual health, but also mental health, substance use and conflict resolution. Before going into classrooms, Wallace attended weekly trainings, where they would review the material and discuss how to answer student questions. After each workshop she taught, she would discuss what had happened with the other college students who had also taught that week.
Part of the success of the program is based on the idea that because the instructors are close in age to the high school students themselves, it is easier for the students to connect. Wallace said that the ability to joke around with the students and have honest discussions with them was important.
“Sex isn’t the most comfortable topic to talk about with a room full of hormonal teenagers, especially ones that you don’t know at all,” Wallace said. “But it was definitely a growing experience for everyone in the room.”
Although Peer Health Exchange is no longer run in the District because of funding issues, Wallace said that she has considered helping out in one of the other cities where the program operates. For her, it is important that teenagers are given accurate information about their health.
“I think it just needs to be about the facts. I think it needs to be empowering the kids,” Wallace said. “There’ve been studies that say if you give them the information, they overwhelmingly make safer choices.”