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Year two of the student health coach program
On a March afternoon in Gasson 012, Meaghan Wostbrock ’13 asks six fellow students to draw a pie chart showing how they spend their time during a typical day. She sketches an example on the room’s whiteboard, with slices to represent exercise, eating, sleep, classes, socializing, and time engaged with social media.
After five minutes, Wostbrock invites the others to share their charts. “Life’s too short to sleep,” says Peter Donahue ’15, who reckons he gets six hours a night. Gabrielle Alleyne ’15 logs eight hours, along with an hour and a half at the gym. “There’s a very thin sliver called ‘me time,’” says Katelyn Kennedy ’15.
The students are volunteer health coaches trained by the University’s Office of Health Promotion (OHP) to help motivate fellow students and educate them in the adoption of healthier lifestyles. The charts are a dry run for a “Well . . . Why Not?” session that Wostbrock and Xijun Zhu ’15 will run later that day for Learning to Learn, the University’s support program for first-generation college students.
OHP was launched in fall 2011, under the leadership of Elise Phillips (formerly a health educator at Simmons College and Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), to develop programs and services that “foster the health and well-being of our students and campus community,” in the words of its mission statement. Drawing on existing programs in nutrition counseling and alcohol and drug education, and on the services of University organizations such as the Women’s Resource Center, OHP runs campus-wide campaigns focused on stress management (BChill), the importance of sleep (Sweet Dreamzzz), and safe drinking (Green Zone), and coordinates a series of “Be Well” talks by faculty and outside speakers addressing topics from time management to dating. In 2012–13 the program counted 54 student coaches (45 women and nine men). For Kennedy, who is in her second year of coaching, the peer-to-peer aspect of the program is central. “To be able to go to a peer, who knows what you’re going through, who’s going through the same stuff . . . that’s a huge benefit,” she says.
In two-day sessions before each semester, coaches are trained in motivational interviewing and the basics of group facilitation. They meet with nutritionist Sheila Tucker, and OHP staff members Robyn Priest and Lindsay Napier present the CHOICES alcohol harm-reduction program. Throughout their training, which continues during the academic year, the student coaches are reminded that their job is not to solve clients’ problems but to “Educate. Motivate. Refer.”
“The coaches know what their knowledge is, and we teach them to make referrals when they go outside that boundary,” says Tucker. Referrals are made to the professionals in OHP, Counseling Services, Campus Recreation, and other services run by the Student Affairs Office.
To be certified by OHP, coaches must pass written and oral tests and conduct a mock health interview, observed by OHP staff. They then join one of eight teams focused on specific topics, including stress, nutrition, healthy relationships, alcohol education, and bystander intervention education (a sexual-assault prevention program). They attend biweekly training sessions as well as monthly meetings with their team managers (student coaches with more than a year’s experience), who coordinate schedules, review evaluations, and promote their team’s offerings across campus. This past academic year, health coaches ran 30 group programs, at the request of residence hall staff, faculty in first-year seminars and Capstone courses, and student clubs and organizations.
Kennedy and director Phillips, for example, recently led a session they called “Stress—Sources and Solutions” for the student-run emergency medical service, Eagle EMS. The meeting, which lasted for about an hour, was “a big group conversation,” says Kennedy, who is team manager of OHP’s stress program. “We talked about how stress can manifest itself physically and emotionally,” she says, and tried to help them “think of what they could do to cope positively.” Recalls Kennedy, “A lot of the kids talked about generally not knowing how to manage their time.”
A cornerstone of health coaching is working one-on-one with students. The goal is to construct an individual health plan (iHP, pronounced eye-hip), based on a private conversation that encompasses eating habits, exercise, relationships, time management, spirituality, and mental health. Coaches are expected to contribute at least two hour-long iHP sessions per month. They hone their interviewing skills by practicing on each other, under the eye of veteran coaches or OHP staff. “Facial expression and tone are very important,” Sumayya Essack, MBA’13, MSW’13, tells junior Elena Gomez during a mock interview Gomez holds with sophomore coach Alexandra Truglio. “You’re not always going to nail the right question at the right time,” Essack explains. The key, she says, is “not to put [a client] on the spot, but to share a concern”—to prompt reflection on the outcomes of a behavior. Resident assistant and lead health coach Scott Thomas ’13 says later, “We stress asking open-ended questions. We want to grant the client the opportunity to say something they need to say.” About half of Thomas’s clients return for follow-up chats a couple of times a semester, “like an oil change or a tune-up,” says the rugby player and sociology major.
“Time management and stress nearly always come up,” says health coach Marina Iturralde ’15, a nursing major. Students often start by talking about nutrition or lack of sleep, she says, “when the underlying factors may be that they’re not managing time well.”
Of the students who request iHPs, the majority are women—78 percent of the 201 who signed up this year. “I would like to see a stronger male involvement in the future,” says Thomas, who reckons he’s seen around 20 students for iHPs since he became a health coach in fall 2011. Thomas helps gets the word out about OHP programs and iHPs by means of weekly Friday “tabling”—manning an information table in a high-traffic area such as McElroy Commons, Stokes Hall, or the Flynn Recreation Complex. Recently, he challenged student passersby to pour what they guessed to be a standard shot of alcohol—actually, water—into a plastic cup, and then to compare their estimate with a shotglass. There are charts and smartphone apps for keeping track of blood alcohol levels, Thomas says, but they’re useless if students have no idea how much they’re consuming. “The power of the drinking culture is great,” he says, but “the more solutions we offer, the better the chance we’ll reach someone.”
Jane Whitehead is a Boston-based writer.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly credited Justin Knight as the photographer. It is Caitlin Cunningham.
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