Teaching about Health over Zoom

By Frances Murray, FCLC 2022

Peer Health Exchange volunteers behind a table in a high school

During my junior year at Fordham, I began working with an organization called Peer Health Exchange (PHE). Their mission is “to empower young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make healthy decisions.” College aged students serve as teachers to discuss health, sex, drug, and mental health education with high school students. PHE gave students the knowledge on how to interact with health providers so that the students would be able to self advocate and communicate their own needs. The program primarily looks for educators from marginalized communities so that the students are able to feel comfortable discussing topics that may not be brought up in class or at home. PHE exchange also provides resources and teaches the students how to utilize them. 

When I first heard of PHE, I became very interested as learning and discussing health is important in my life. I am a natural science major and pre-Med because I admire the body and understand how mechanisms and medicines function. While I am undecided about what field of medicine I want to study, I have always been interested in women’s health because of the way that the doctor must build a relationship and learn about the life of the patient. I have also decided to minor in anthropology because it allows me to study the way that medicine, institutions, and society are impacting people’s lives and how we live in the world. As I began to look into PHE, I felt that I could really benefit from volunteering because it would allow me to use my own knowledge of wellness and work with younger students to understand it in their own ways. In many ways, PHE aligned with a lot of my beliefs about how health involves the entire life of the patient. A 15 minute doctor’s visit could never begin to unravel this, and so by teaching people to examine and understand their own health needs, they are more able to seek correct treatment and explain themselves to professionals. 

While working with PHE, I taught 3 classes at various high schools in the city over Zoom. I had one or two other educators that I would normally be working with and I reported to coordinators from Fordham who had been with PHE for more time. Each week I had a lesson that was constructed by PHE to teach to the students. I normally adjusted the information a bit so that it fit the needs of the class. For example, one teacher I worked with was very invested in PHE and so we would meet before class to make sure the students would understand the material. Her students came from places of low socioeconomic standing and it was a sensitive topic for them to talk about. So we would substitute those parts of the lesson by talking about race or gender, topics of high importance that the students were able to relate to much more. In addition to teaching, I would meet with Fordham’s PHE division with weekly meetings over Discord. We would meet to talk about events and messages for the week, and we would learn about topics that would be brought up in the class. These would be lessons for the educators on topics like being transgender, race marginalization, and helping the kids to open up over Zoom. 

Working with the students was the best part of PHE, but I truly feel like I got cheated because of COVID. The most fun in the classes would be when the students would comment and as questions, but it was really hard being over Zoom. At the very end of the year, some kids were back in class and the participation increased. Some of the classes had a lot more participation than others. However, two of my classes were freshmen students so they had never even met their classmates in person. Getting them to open up enough to ask questions about mental health or sex could be very hard for this reason. All of my host teachers expressed excitement about going back to school in person because of the toll of staying at home on the students. At times we would also talk about more complex issues like microaggressions, privilege, or  intersectionality, and at times it was hard to gauge whether or not these topics were sticking. I personally had remembered learning about these things in high school, but  it took until college for me to really process and understand the reasoning behind these ideas. Despite the challenges, so many students did love to talk. We had great conversations about alcohol and genitalia at 8:20am!

Overall, I really enjoyed working for PHE exchange. Like any job or volunteer work, there is so much communication, learning, and interaction that are required. I was happy to share my own knowledge and even more so when the students would ask thoughtful questions. It was a great experience and many times I felt myself wishing that I had this type of health education when I was in high school.