Health outreach programs stand to benefit Austin teens

Laura Hallas

Crowded school auditoriums and health courses are the familiar venues for teenage health programming, but these environments don’t usually inspire candid conversations or practical advice for navigating real life problems. College students have a unique perspective on teenage health and behavior that could be harnessed for local health outreach programs and begin real conversations about youth health in Texas. 

 Health outreach programs link college students to high schools and middle schools, where they lead discussions about sexual education and other relevant health topics in small classroom settings. Programs such as Peer Health Exchange train college students in basic health curriculum, who then present the health knowledge and skills to high schoolers in extracurricular or in-school programming. Schools including Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago already participate.

 This model works on several levels. Similar age and life experiences increase comfort for teenagers, and college students still remember what it’s like in high school, so their health advice holds increased weight for students getting ready to live independently. Q&A’s have the feel of asking an older sibling for advice — if that sibling were trained in health education. 

 In Texas, no opportunity for health education improvement should go unnoticed. More than 200,000 child sexual assaults are estimated to occur every year in Texas. The state also has the highest repeat teen birth rate in the country and people between the ages of 20-24 make up 20 percent of all new HIV cases in the state.

 To combat systemic issues such as these, one UT professor wrote about the need for more conversation with teens about sexual health — a point that comes up again and again in the conversation about Texas’ sex ed. College students are perfectly placed to start that conversation.

 Austin has particularly fertile ground for successful outreach programs.  There are more than 100 charter schools in the Austin area and several magnet schools, each with requirements distinct from those of public schools. Additionally, Austin’s reputation as a more liberal city could allow an outreach program dealing with sensitive issues such as sexual behavior to thrive relative to other parts of Texas. 

 Students and faculty are already familiar with community outreach in the classroom and UT’s ability to train both educators and health professionals make it unique in its ability to find qualified and interested volunteers. As local sources of philanthropy groups and health-related majors, universities are flush with qualified volunteers, including existing groups like UT Hope, Michael and Susan Dell Healthy Living Center and UTeach.

 UTeach executive director Michael Marder said proximity to the subject matter helps make outreach teaching programs successful, one of the tenets of UTeach.

 “If you want to teach STEM fields you have to have students who know it,” Marder said. “And what better place to go than one of the biggest colleges in the state where students are majoring in STEM subjects? Where else are you going to go?”

UT has the infrastructure and expertise to make an impact through health outreach. Implementation of these programs will give college students invaluable experience while changing the lives of more Austin teens.

Hallas is a Plan II and health and society sophomore from Allen. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.