What would a college student do to get a free T-shirt? Make an appointment? Stand in line? Be interviewed? Make a pledge to be tobacco-free?
Based on the success of Virginia Tech’s Health Education and Awareness Team’s (HEAT) Tobacco-Free Hokies Campaign, the answer to all those questions is “yes.”
The program will give out more than 1,000 “Tobacco-Free Hokie” T-shirts during the 2012-13 school year to Virginia Tech students and middle school students from the surrounding community who pledge to stay tobacco-free.
“People go nuts for those shirts,” said Richard Lee of Alexandria, Va., a senior majoring in biology and philosophy. “Those shirts help create a tobacco-free community on campus. And the middle school kids are so excited to get them, too, because they see the older kids wearing them.”
This is just one of HEAT’s peer education programs to promote healthy life choices. Each semester, students offer dozens of public health workshops that benefit both the campus community and its surrounding communities.
Jon Fritsch, who received his bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and biology in 1989 and his master’s degree in sociology in 1995, was one of the first peer educators at Virginia Tech. More than 25 years later, he serves as an assistant director of health education at the Schiffert Health Center, where he helps lead today’s peer educators.
“My predecessor and friend, Jo Ann Underwood, started the peer education program at Virginia Tech,“ Fritsch said. “It was the mid-1980’s, about the time HIV started hitting the news, and she needed help teaching health education programs to college-aged kids, my peers.”
As a student, Fritsch helped Underwood reach out across campus and educate students about making healthier choices. Today, he finds himself in the role once held by his friend, searching for the next generation of student educators.
“Our responsibility is to deliver great, high-quality health education programming and public health programming,” Fritsch said. “And these students play a vital role in helping us fulfill our mission.”
The peer education programs at Virginia Tech have had many names. Five years ago, Fritsch and his wife, Laurie Fritsch, an assistant director of health education at Schiffert, combined two existing programs, Wellness Peer Education and Health Promotion Team, into HEAT.
Laurie Fritsch earned her bachelor’s degree in health and physical education in 1998 and her master’s degree in the same field in 2000.
While all student members of HEAT are volunteers, they must apply to join the program. When HEAT recruited new members in 2012, it received more than 150 applications and only accepted about 30.
“These students love to serve,” said Laurie Fritsch, who co-directs the program. “For some of them, they live, eat, and breathe health, and for others, it's just one of many volunteer activities to which they are equally committed. They are extraordinary students.”
Annie Loyd of Falls Church, Va., a junior majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, was a freshman when she applied to HEAT.
“Being a member of HEAT is the best thing I've done at Virginia Tech,” Loyd said. “It really did change my career plan and what I wanted to do with my life. I think that speaks for itself. Being a part of something like this really does influence you and it changes the way you look at things.”
Before new members can begin teaching, they must undergo an intensive training process in which they learn how to teach, engage their peers in discussion in a variety of settings, and speak intelligently and frankly about topics.
Lee is in his second year as member of HEAT. He applied to the program because of something his orientation leader told him as an incoming freshman.
“He told us that the sooner we got involved, the sooner we would truly experience the real Virginia Tech,” Lee said. “So for me it was about being part of something important at this university and being part of HEAT has been a very fulfilling experience.”
Jon Fritsch said that while HEAT is doing well in terms of public health programs and participation, he and the rest of the HEAT members continue to look for ways to improve it.
“Health is a growing field and I see our offerings and the things that we teach expanding,” Fritsch said. “The university believes in the idea of preventative care, so as the health needs of the students change, so too will our offerings to meet those needs.”
Watch a video that highlights the Health Education and Awareness Team’s tobacco-free workshop for middle school students.
Members of Virginia Tech’s Health Education and Awareness Team do public health outreach events and teach workshops about safer sexual behaviors, contraception, healthy eating choices, sleep, skin cancer prevention, tobacco-use prevention, and cold and flu awareness, among others.
All events address issues that aim to make the campus and its surrounding communities healthier and safer.
Anna Corona, who earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and human nutrition, foods, and exercise in 2012, is now working on her master’s degree in public health at the University of Florida. She was a member of HEAT and called it a life-changing experience.
“When I first joined HEAT, I was set on going to medical school, but for the wrong reasons,” Corona said. “I was having so much fun with HEAT that I decided to go into public health instead of medicine. I really enjoyed working directly with the community and working toward prevention of disease rather than focusing on curing disease. HEAT helped me to realize my passion for public health, and for that I am forever grateful.”
Health education programs at the university have been supported through donations in several ways.
Community outreach by students about the dangers of tobacco has been funded by Pfizer Inc. in a partnership arranged by Virginia Tech Corporate and Foundation Relations.
And an extraordinary commitment of future support for health education has been made by the university’s former student health director, Dr. Charles W. Schiffert, in honor of his late wife, Dolores.
Annie Loyd of Falls Church, Va., a junior majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, teaches a health education course to middle school students in Giles County, Va.
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