A quick stroll around campus often highlights changes to the Capstone. From new buildings to a larger student body, things have changed for students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike.
If you look closer, you might see a more subtle change, but one that hundreds of students have put tens of thousands of hours into bringing about.
Walk from Bidgood Hall to Denny Chimes, and a navy shirt with “Kale” emblazoned across the front might catch your eye. Head for Gorgas Library, and a quick glance at a student’s “Squad” shirt could make you look closer. While the front of the shirt plays into pop culture, the back shares a different message, detailing how to engage in active bystander intervention.
Keep going across campus toward the Ferguson Student Center, and you’ll stumble across a small crimson and white structure and be beckoned to stop and talk to the Health Hut team. They want to share games, t-shirts, stress relievers and even condoms.
All are part of a program working to educate students at The University of Alabama on how to take the best care of themselves that they can. From sharing mental health awareness to stress relief tips and promoting healthy sexual practices to self care, Project Health and Gamma is taking student health issues and topics and addressing them to students, by students.
Behind the scenes
Project Health and Gamma features four branches: Health Ambassadors, Health Hut, Health Advocates, and Gamma. With more than 160 students involved, the student-led program comprises two student organizations, and has become something of a campus icon in recent years.
Project Health and Gamma is led by a team of 41 students, and supported by two staff members and two graduate assistants,
“Project Health and Gamma are the go-to sources for peer health education on campus at UA. They implement community health programs for college students,” said Brittney Vigna, a Project Health and Gamma advisor and assistant director of health promotion and wellness.
Team members tackle health issues and topics with their own spin, as well as a peer-to-peer connection that is proven to make a difference.
“Our Project Health and Gamma students pitch their own ideas. They make all their own materials. We lead them, and help make sure information is accurate,” said Vigna. “I fully believe in college students and their ability to impact one another and positively impact their campus. It shows that students listen to other students and they are more heavily impacted by other students. It shows that they can make change.”
The 160 members of Project Health and Gamma engage in on-campus programming for 60 hours each week, reaching more than 3,000 students. The work these peer health educators do is groundbreaking and far-reaching, as they interact with students 60,000 times each academic year.
“Nationally, there isn’t really an evaluation model for what we do,” said Charlotte Petonic, a Project Health and Gamma advisor and assistant director of health promotion and wellness. “This year, Brittney and I are piloting our first true evaluation of interactions. All of our program materials are being made based off of learning outcomes.”
What may seem like quick and fun interactions regarding health to students, is actually so much more to their peer educators. “We are trying to check for knowledge and understanding so we can show that we are having quality interactions on campus and that students are learning from what we are doing,” Petonic said.
Both Vigna and Petonic have backgrounds in public health, Vigna with a master’s of public health and Petonic with a master’s of education in health promotion. With Project Health and Gamma, they have helped transform the program into a model that is sought after across the nation.
“Peer education effectiveness by topic, it doesn’t exist,” Petonic said. “There isn’t any literature on how to evaluate the effectiveness of your program, so that’s what we are in the process of creating. The traditional ‘How many students are attending and how much stuff you have given out?’ isn’t a good model.”
Olivia Gobble, a senior majoring in chemistry, began working with Project Health and Gamma in August 2014. After serving as a health topic team coordinator for multiple semesters, she was elected to serve as president of the entire group.
For Gobble, it is the impact she can have on her fellow students that drives her.
“There are very few student-run organizations on campus that have the ability to save a life,” she said. “We reach 3,000 students each week.”
With topics including sexual health and alcohol safety, Gobble said she knows the impact Project Health and Gamma can have on a student early on can change the course of that student’s time at UA.
“We want to catch them early, and teach them how to be safe now,” she said. “That’s going to help them now, but also throughout their lives.”
In the spotlight
To reach UA’s student body, it can take a creative — and sometimes in your face — approach to make information register with them. Project Health and Gamma is known for shying away from normal, and bringing student health hot topics into the spotlight.
From iconic T-shirts that push students to think in new ways to irreverent buttons that play off of pop culture, Project Health and Gamma is reaching students on their level.
The reason that approach works is because the creativity on display belongs to the Project Health students, Vigna said.
“People see handouts and buttons, but I don’t know if they know how much work goes into this program,” Vigna said. “Our students put their own thoughts, work, and creativity into this. This is theirs, because all of their hard work goes into this. When you read the information they put together, it’s impressive to see what these students are capable of.”
Lucas Nelson, a junior majoring in biology and philosophy, serves as director of the health ambassadors. He said it has been a very rewarding experience to be able to teach his peers.
“When you communicate to them something tangible about bystander intervention and you see the light go on for them, that’s huge,” he said. “We’re able to reach a group of people that may be aware of issues, but probably not the details and definitely not how they can help.”
After health ambassador programming takes place, more and more students will know what to do when they are at a bar or party and see a friend talking with someone who might not have the best of intentions.
“In our programming, we put them in verbal situations and ask them what they can do to combat the situation,” he said. “I think interactions like that make a major difference on campus.”
Gobble is quick to point out that the Project Health and Gamma students benefit greatly from their advisory team, Petonic and Vigna.
“Honestly, had they not come in, I don’t think this organization would be anywhere near where it is,” Gobble said. “That is one of the most important things that could have happened, having two advisors who love this organization in such different ways is incredible. They are both so passionate about it in different ways. Brittney is incredible with messaging, and Charlotte is so passionate about sexual health.
“I’ve been on other exec boards for other groups, and they are the best advisors I have ever seen.”
Overall, the difference Project Health and Gamma has made on campus is a large one — and it’s continuing to grow. But its impact reaches even further among the students who join the peer education team each year.
“We are able to provide a home group away from home,” Vigna said. “I feel like with peer educators, a lot of these people who become friends would never have met each other another way, and I love seeing students bond over a shared interest that is making positive, productive change.”
This story was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Capstone Magazine, the official magazine of UA’s Division of Student Life. Check out Capstone Magazine online.