Being proactive: UAA’s Peer Health Educators raise awareness of sexual violence prevention on campus

by cmmyers  |   

From left: UAA Student Health and Counseling's Peer Health Educators Travis Klover, Jacob Powell, Amelia Smith and Raquel Williams. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

In June 2016, UAA's Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center (AJSAC) released their findings of the University of Alaska Campus Climate Survey, which included all three UA System schools: UAA, UAF and UAS. The online survey conducted from January 2015 to spring semester of 2016 found that 10 percent of UAA students experienced sexual misconduct, sexual assault or both during that time.

Widespread efforts across all campuses have been made to provide education to students, faculty and staff on issues relating to Title IX and sexual misconduct and sexual assault. That's where UAA's Student Health and Counseling Center's (SHCC) Peer Health Educators (PHE) come in.

The peer-to-peer education program provides presentations taught by students for students to help break the ice when tackling tough topics. Bringing in the Bystander training is crucial in helping educate students on raising awareness on sexual prevention violence issues on and off campus.

"We've trained over 2,000 students at UAA," said Hannah Guzzi, health promotion specialist in the SHCC, who also oversees the PHE program and helps coordinate presentations across campus. Currently, SHCC employs five Peer Health Educators through a grant administered to the university by the State of Alaska's Department of Health and Social Services through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Rape Prevention and Education (RPE) program.

So far this semester Guzzi said the PHE group has already given eight presentations with about 132 participants and more are lined up through the end of fall semester. 

Additionally Guzzi said she works closely with UAA's Title IX Office to help develop programming around prevention education and that their office is a resource for the PHE when incorporating Title IX information into their presentations.

"I mostly work with them [PHE] through our Dating Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition for Change (DVSA), programing and if there's educational events that they're doing, I help make sure the information and language used is accurate," said Bridget Coffou, prevention education coordinator in the Office of Equity and Compliance.

Both Guzzi and Coffou said PHE have an important role on campus in bridging the divide between student and authority figures on a tough and often uncomfortable and taboo topic.

"As human beings, we naturally look to our peers to figure out what is and isn't acceptable from behavior to language, to the way we dress," Coffou said of the PHE group's vital role in prevention education on campus. "Having students lead their peers in these workshops helps set the standard of what is acceptable at our university."

Guzzi and Coffou hope their work with the PHE will help widen the groups reach in providing bystander trainings across campus and encourage faculty to take the opportunity to invest a little classroom time for this important topic.

Tackling tough topics

Every Friday, UAA's five Peer Health Educators meet to discuss and practice upcoming Bringing in the Bystander trainings. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

The PHE - a group of five - meet weekly every Friday morning in the SHCC offices. Guzzi goes over notes from recent training; the group has a chance to talk about upcoming trainings and spends a little time practicing their presentations.

UAA's PHE group includes Jacob Powell, a fourth-year mechanical engineering major; Travis Klover a senior computer systems engineering major; Amelia Smith a fourth-year legal studies major; Raquel Williams a sophomore pre-nursing student and Alex Jorgensen, a political science senior. Both Powell and Klover received bystander training before when they lived on campus.

"I was a resident here on campus and received a Bringing in the Bystander training and I thought it was really valuable," said Powell. He knew Klover from living on campus and knew that he was involved in the PHE program. He wanted to get involved, especially since he'd participated in a similar group providing peer education in high school. "I have always had an interest in peer health education and I just think it's a really important thing - especially the bystander intervention. Hearing it from your peers is important and really the most effective way to do it."

The PHE group knows their job is important and that talking to their peers is effective in not only raising awareness of sexual violence issues but also in providing tools for prevention. When the PHE group presents in a classroom, they start by giving a pretest to help gauge the students' general knowledge of what bystander intervention is, and to also give themselves a benchmark for how well they conveyed their information during the training.

Topics covered include everything from learning what a bystander is and how to be one, to how to overcome potential barriers that may prevent a person from intervening, to discussing sex in popular culture like TV and social media.

The group recognizes that stepping in during a tense moment is hard - easier said than done. But the PHE group provides students with strategies to intervene in a way that they feel comfortable and safe.

"We give students the tools to feel more confident in doing bystander intervention in a way that keeps them safe, but also allows them to successfully step into that situation and helping," said Smith of the training. "We also talk about how to care for a victim of sexual assault."

Another important aspect of bystander training is discussing consent and healthy relationships.

"It's really important as a bystander to understand what consent is," Smith said. "It can come in many forms, and it's really important to understand what it looks like and what it doesn't."

The PHE help students identify the "red flags," which are often hard to determine if you don't know what to look for, Smith said. She said that bystander training equips college students with the knowledge and know-how to navigate the situations they may encounter to help prevent a sexual assault.

The three D's

UAA's PHE group uses the "Three D's" - distraction, delegation and direct action - during their presentations to educate students on bystander intervention strategies.

"A big part of the training focuses on this for when people decide they want to take action," said Powell, explaining that the Three D's represent the main ways one can intervene as a bystander.

Distraction is an indirect way for people to intervene that doesn't put the bystander directly into the situation; delegation allows students to bring in another person, someone like another friend or authority figure to help diffuse the situation; and lastly, direct action is confronting the situation, by either removing the potential victim to another location or creating an environment where it's not possible for an unwanted sexual encounter to take place.

"We like to remind people that those two other parts are part of bystander intervention and it doesn't just require direct action," said Powell. The PHE group realizes that direct action in a potentially heated situation is not always everyone's first choice, and that distraction and delegation are easier, less intimidating routes to take that still provide effective help for a potential victim of sexual assault.

Changing ideas

Some of the biggest challenges the PHE group face are trying to change cultural ideas around sex, consent and what healthy relationships look like. The group says their presentations leave a lot of time for questions and discussions regarding these usually "taboo" topics, and that at times it's difficult when their own values surrounding sex are challenged.

"Sex is taught in school - generally - people have received some sort of education about sex and consent, but it's never done well," said Jorgensen. "We're turning the experience that someone has had in the past with this information into a positive experience and presenting it in a new way, and hopefully in a way that is relatable, rather than your average teacher to student relationship."

Jorgensen has been a PHE for the past three years and his continued involvement came from his desire to change harmful and unhealthy perceptions of sex. Klover, like Jorgensen, also expressed a desire to try and reshape the cultural conversation around sex and says that he feels like the PHE's message is getting out there across campus.

"My favorite part of the job is when I run into students two or three weeks after I give a presentation and they say, 'Hey man, you gave a good presentation,' and they're always really excited after the fact," said Klover. "They always like to share a part of the presentation that was impactful for them - that's really cool."

The PHE group said they are starting to see a shift on campus - a slow, but a positive one - as the university has put in mandatory Title IX training for all students, staff and faculty on campus, as well as the satellite campuses, and is working to create a culture of respect. They acknowledge these big shifts in culture are often slow and painstaking, but that to them, being a part of that change to help educate UAA students on how to be better educated on sex and how to intervene and stop a potential sexual assault makes it worth it.

"Sexual assault and sexual misconduct does happen on our campus - and it doesn't have to be that way," said Smith. "I feel that the more people who are educated by us, their peers whom they go through the same things in life with, makes it easier for them to say something and talk about."

If you are an instructor of staff member interested in signing up your class or department for Bringing in the Bystander training, please contact Hannah Guzzi at or 907-786-4046.

If you have experienced or witnessed any form of harassment, discrimination or retaliation, you can make a report to the Office of Equity and Compliance. All reports made to the Office of Equity and Compliance are kept confidential. You can file a report online by filling out the online incident report form, sending an email to or calling 907-786-0818 to speak directly with a Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinator.

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

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