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A healthy support system

Peer wellness advocates learn to coach, motivate fellow students on their wellness journey

April 6, 2018

Peer wellness advocate Isabella Solano ’20 talks to her client, Martha Gonzalez ’21
Peer wellness advocate Isabella Solano ’20 talks to her client, Martha Gonzalez ’21

The Mount’s newest group of pioneers is determined to help everyone along the path to health and happiness. In less than a year, peer wellness advocates (PWA) have already become an invaluable pillar in many a student’s support system.

Under the recently launched PWA program, advocates get ongoing training from professionals on campus and expert guest speakers that prepare them for their crucial roles as leaders, changemakers and mentors. They earn their credentials as Certified Peer Educators through the BACCHUS initiatives of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

The advocates are trained in the four pillars of the Mount Wellness movement: Eat Green, De-Stress, Move More, and Sleep Well. Most university peer educator programs similar to the Mount’s PWA deal in several domains of wellness, says Alison Halpern, wellness manager.

“Our program is set apart by peer wellness coaching,” Halpern says. “We have a hybrid peer health education model in which the PWAs develop programming as well as see students one-on-one for peer wellness coaching. This multilevel approach allows us to reach students individually and on the larger community level.”

Another distinguishing feature of the program is the emphasis on the unique health needs of future healthcare providers. Over 50 percent of Mount students are training for future careers in the health sciences, and the PWA program’s Healthy Healthcare Provider track provides them with the knowledge and resources they need to avoid injury and burnout on the job and to model healthy behaviors in front of their coworkers and patients.

Advocate Isabella Solano ‘20, a biochemistry major, plans to become a nutritionist and chiropractor. “I wanted to learn how I can help my peers in the Mount community think more about wellbeing on a daily basis, and gain tools to keep conscious of their health habits,” Solano says.

Last fall, Solano was matched with student client Martha Gonzalez ’21, a political science major. The two met once a week for about a month.

“I decided to sign up for a trial, and ended up loving it,” Gonzalez says. “I was able to add to my support system because my peer wellness advocate was very friendly and compassionate and helped me set goals.”

Gonzalez says she appreciated how Solano listened.

“If I told her that I didn’t eat too healthy, she would simply offer advice instead of reprimanding me for my bad habits,” she says. “She really helped me get started achieving my health goals and inspired me to work on myself and my well-being.”

Nursing major Ethan Diego ’20 values the program’s flexibility. “I like how it’s tailored to what I specifically need, not some end-all, be-all process that I need to rigidly follow to be healthy,” he says.

His advocate, Justine Hsiao ’20, says she has grown, too, as a coach.

“I’ve learned everyone struggles in their own way and has insecurities,” she says. “It’s important to be understanding of our diverse campus. I’ve also learned how to take initiative. Having that drive to participate: whether it’s taking on new clients, or planning events, I’ve earned a world of experience and knowledge.”

The advocates are the program’s bedrock, Halpern says.

“I am constantly impressed by their dedication, flexibility, teamwork and creativity. This is the first year of the program, and this cohort plays a huge part in shaping what the program will look like,” she says. “Another great strength is that we have institutional support. We are really lucky that wellness is a priority of President Ann McElaney-Johnson and that so many people want to see a peer wellness program succeed.”

With the planned construction of the Wellness Pavilion on the Chalon Campus, the advocates will not only get their own space for meetings, events, workshops and classes, but also a higher profile.

“When students see that wellness ‘W’ logo, they’ll know they are about to learn something and have fun at the same time,” Halpern says. “As the community starts to understand and appreciate the PWAs’ skills and training, I see collaboration between other departments becoming even stronger.”

And while it’s important to know the peer wellness advocates are not medical professionals, they are positive changemakers.

“What do they do? They listen,” Halpern says. “Wellness coaching gives students a space to work through what they want in terms of their own health and wellness.”

The PWA program is generously funded by the UniHealth Foundation and the Joseph Drown Foundation.