Peer educators link students, counselors

Lizzy Balboa

Many organizations are taking to the philosophy that young people relate better to other young people than they do to their elders. Schools hire student ambassadors, faith groups hire peer ministers, and now the Grand Valley State University Counseling and Career Development Center has remodeled its peer educator program to follow the trend.

“We’re utilizing them through the counseling center as a whole as kind of liaisons between us as therapists and the larger campus community, and specifically the larger student body,” said Melissa Selby-Theut, director of the peer educator program. “We want (the counseling center) to be a place that is accessible to the larger campus community, and we want it to be somewhere where students feel welcome and feel a sense of comfort. By connecting with students peer-to-peer, our hope is that we’ll reach that goal.”

The peer educator program has transformed over the years, initially serving as a wellness program. Now, nine peer educators assist in one of four administrative areas of the university: Alcohol Campus Education Services (ACES), Career Services, Strengths Quest test administration, and a learning and study skills development program coordinated with the Student Academic Success Center.

“Our hope is that, within each of those administration areas, that the students that they come in contact with through their presentations and through the events that they do will walk away with information specific and readily usable, readily able to be implemented into what they’re doing as college students,” Selby-Theut said.

With the goal to spread awareness of mental health issues, the peer educators assist program coordinators with delivering presentations and hosting events. Recently, they manned tables for the National Depression Screening Day, and they also helped with family weekend.

But the work of the peer educators varies based on which administrative department they are in. One student in the learning and study skills program has designed a presentation to teach others how to effectively incorporate technology into the work they do on campus.

Alecia Smith, ACES graduate assistant, said the peer educators in her program help deliver the presentation “Alcohol Truth, Lies and Consequences.” The educators can choose to work alone or with a coordinator to present the hour-and-a-half talk to campus organizations.

“Our schedules have been really crazy this semester in trying to figure out who’s going to do which program, so it’s been really nice to be able to just say, ‘Hey, do you want to take this program because I already have a commitment this night,’” Smith said. “It’s been really helpful to have somebody else to take some of the pressure off of doing all these programs.”
Smith said the peer educators aren’t limited to alcohol presentations, but will also have the opportunity to spread awareness of marijuana and Adderall abuse, too.

“We really want the program to expand and grow and be known across campus as kind of a vital element to the campus community,” Selby-Theut said.

But the community is not alone in benefitting from the peer educator service.

“A lot of research is focused on the gains the peer educators make personally and professionally,” Selby-Theut said. “A big part of peer education is actually the growth of the educators themselves. What I want to make sure is that it is two-fold. That not only are they growing as professionals, which is a vital part of programming, but also that those skills are being relayed directly out to the campus community in a way that is demonstrably and measurably beneficial to the students that they’re working with.”

So far, the experiences of the peer educators have enhanced their education of the university.

“I have been able to sit in on some of the group meeting sessions that Alecia does and been able to gain a better understanding of alcohol awareness and the education behind our program here at GV,” said Natosha Beamon, a peer educator in the ACES program. Not only has she learned the ins-and-outs of the university initiative, but she has also picked up practical knowledge along the way. “I have gained a better understanding about alcohol and the responsibility that needs to come while you are choosing to drink, and the affects that alcohol can actually have on one’s body.”

For more information about the peer educator program, visit

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