Barrow students provide health education for young peers
From left, Lolenisia Tua’i, Danielle Simmonds and Ta’alefili Unutoa are seen at Ilsagvik College in Barrow training to become junior public health educators mentoring younger students. Tua’i and Unutoa are from Barrow High School, and Simmonds is from Ilsagvik College.
Middle schoolers in Barrow have some untraditional teachers for touchy coming-of-age subjects.
Area high school and college students are part of the Junior Public Health Educator program, organized and run by Ilisagvik College and the Northwest Area Health Education Center, or NW AHEC.
Ilisagvik is a tribal college in Barrow. The college also houses the Northwest AHEC, one of five such education centers in Alaska.
Ilisagvik College’s Dean of Students Gloria Burnett coordinates the Northwest AHEC, and the JPHE program. Burnett said the JPHEs go to middle school classes and talk about public health topics. Usually, one or two of the older students present to a class along with someone from the AHEC who talks about health careers.
Presentation topics include teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, child abuse, suicide and sexually transmitted diseases — areas in which Alaska’s status is worse than the national average.
Educators choose their presentation topics based on what they’re interested in, and what they think affects middle school students.
“I think it could really make an impact with specific topics that the students find passion for in their communities,” Burnett said.
Burnett said the students usually present to classrooms with 15 to 25 people. In that setting, the middle school audiences often feel comfortable opening up about concerns in their own lives, she said.
April Phillip, a JPHE who attends Ilisagvik, said the older students have become mentors of sorts for the middle schoolers.
“There’s such a close relationship and a lot of the students grow to look up to you,” Phillip said. She will graduate this spring with an allied health degree, and plans to go to nursing school.
Phillip’s presentation is on substance abuse. She talked about her experience as a JPHE at the American Indian Science and Engineering Conference in Anchorage earlier this month.
Phillip said she chose the subject because it’s something middle schoolers are making decisions about. She wants to make sure they have information before doing so.
“They’re gonna make this choice on their own,” Phillip said.
Phillip talks about the effects of a variety of substances, mostly those that rural youth consider using, like alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes. And she talks about alternatives — ways to stay busy, and other options for entertainment in their community.
Some of the JPHEs, like Phillip, are already interested in health careers. For others, it’s their first introduction to the field.
“It winds up being a really good recruitment tool for health care careers,” Burnett said.
That dual-role is particularly important because Alaska Natives are underrepresented in health care fields, Burnett said.
Ilisavgik offers an associates degree in allied health, as well as summer camps for middle and high school students meant to introduce them to those fields. The program has helped recruit not only high schoolers for the college, but it gets middle schoolers more interested in higher education.
The junior educators, or JPHEs, take a 10-hour training course before they start presenting their public health topics to middle school students.
Burnett said the training course talks about what public health is and how it can be used to improve the community. Students also learn the skills needed for teaching: communication, public outreach, research and presentation. At the end of the course, the junior educators give a mock presentation and receive feedback before they take their presentation to local youth.
The program is in its second year with funding from the First Nations Development Institute’s Native Youth and Culture Fund. Originally, it started as an AHEC pilot program, which was supported by the Department of Health and Social Services.
The program also runs through the summer, and includes summer camp students who are interested in becoming junior public health educators.
Burnett said it’s a flexible program, and they can offer the training more than once each year to get new students involved.
Last year, the program included eight educators.
The program doesn’t have a set length of time that JPHEs must participate, but Ilisagvik student Laura Nicolai said she thinks it will result in life-long sharing of public health information.
Nicolai is also studying allied health. Eventually, she wants to go into crisis counseling. Her presentation is on suicide. She shares statistics with the students, and talks about how they can help, particularly by being non-judgmental and listening to their peers.
The program is still developing.
“It’s something we’re planning to grow and expand and use as a tool,” Burnett said.
Burnett said they’re adding an elder guidance and support component to the program, as well as aligning it with the borough’s Inupiaq curriculum standards.
“The next time the course is taught, it will continue to be more and more culturally relevant,” Burnett said.
The North Slope Borough School District launched Inupiaq standards last spring, which take a holistic approach that have a variety of culturally relevant objectives, Burnett said. While some educational standards focus on the academic nuts and bolts of a curriculum, these standards address Inupiaq standards, Burnett said
The standards are being incorporated into the training course, and will also assist students in choosing and presenting culturally relevant topics.
The program is also trying to move beyond Barrow and impact communities throughout the region, Burnett said. The goal is to expand both to North Slope Borough villages, and to hub communities elsewhere in rural Alaska.
Wainwright will be the next home to a JPHE program, Burnett said.
There’s a teacher interested in helping coordinate the program there, and Burnett is working on scheduling the training course.
The program is looking for teachers interested in coordinating the programs in other communities as well, with Nome and Kotzebue two likely sites for expansion.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.