Earlier this year, the Vaden Health Center launched a new Birth Control Peer Educators (BCE) program that gives students the chance to act as peer counselors on the topic of birth control.
According to Julie Richards, a nurse practitioner in Medical Services and one of the Vaden faculty supervisors for the program, BCEs have existed for several years in a “pilot form.” The counselors’ names were listed on the Vaden website.
In order to raise awareness about the BCEs as a resource, Medical Services teamed up with Health Promotion Services (I Thrive) this year to hire two student coordinators—Geffan Pearlson ’14 and Amy Young ’14—to manage the program.
Richards explained that many students use Vaden for family planning services and that clinicians receive a large amount of questions about contraception. By educating patients beforehand, BCEs allow patients to come to their appointments well prepared.
“We really hope that we can provide another way for students to get accurate information about these kind of medical concerns,” Richards said. “Then when they come to see their clinician at Vaden, they can have a more informed discussion and answer any additional questions that they have.”
BCEs undergo training to learn both counseling skills and medical information. Richards herself helps teach counselors the medical content they need to advise patients on birth control.
“We wanted to provide some specific training along those lines that would focus primarily on allowing the counselors to discuss all the methods that are available,” Richards said.
Donnovan Yisrael ’89 M.A. ’90, manager of emotional and sexual health programs at I Thrive, noted that the BCE program offers students a chance to be involved in sexual health education and also provides leadership opportunities.
“On the end of the counselors, they’re getting their feet wet and enjoying that process of being a leader,” Yisrael said.
Yisrael also explained that the BCEs provide an alternative to often-unreliable online resources.
“I think it’s talking to another peer about<\p>…<\p>what’s involved in the decision-making process and having some tender loving care—some compassion and care face-to-face that you’re not going to get from the web,” Yisrael said.
According to Pearlson and Young, talking to peers gives students the opportunity for one-on-one consultations for which clinicians may not have time.
“Providers don’t have enough time to really sit down with people and go over all of their options,” Pearlson said.
They also emphasized that the educators are not there to provide emergency contraception or discuss individuals’ specific medical concerns.
“Our program fulfills a very specific niche,” Young said. “We’re not physicians, we are peer educators. We’re not advising people on what birth control is right for them; we’re just telling them, ‘Here are some of your options and let’s have a discussion.’”
The program managers
Pearlson and Young are both seniors studying human biology and considering futures in medicine in primary or preventative care. Young is also a Peer Health Educator (PHE) at a freshman dorm on campus.
“[I’m] very interested in behavioral changes and community engagement and more grassroots change to positively impact health,” Young said. “I love the idea of the empowerment aspect of the program — that women could become more informed and could come into their doctor’s office or doctor’s appointment already knowing what questions to ask.”
Pearlson has been conducting thesis research around the topic of sexual health and women’s health, and by interviewing young Latino women about family planning, she saw firsthand many of the misconceptions surrounding birth control.
“I’ve had a lot of friends coming to me asking me questions [about birth control and sexual health],” Pearlson said. “Now I’m formally trained to do this, and I can actually better answer their questions.”
By working together, the two hope to expand the program and bring awareness about the resources available to students on campus.
“Having the two of us spearheading it is better for [Vaden] because then we can take control of outreach,” Pearlson explained. “We’ve really taken it on as our project.”
One of the program’s main focuses is dispelling misconceptions about birth control. Pearlson explained that many women do not fully understand the side effects of different methods and often assume the worst about hormonal options.
“[People think] that hormones are these nebulous things that are bad for you and going to make you into a different person,” Pearlson said. “These misconceptions exist—and not only in the population that I was interviewing but also here at Stanford.”
They explained that many people do not realize that non-hormonal options for birth control exist, with some of the biggest misconceptions revolving around intrauterine devices (IUDs).
Inserted through the cervix, an IUD sits at the bottom of the uterus and can be either hormonal or non-hormonal. Also known as a “long acting reversible contraceptive,” IUDS can last up to 12 years.
“It’s more effective than sterilization. It’s the most effective form of birth control,” Pearlson said. “Nobody actually knows what it looks like and how really tiny it is and how it’s not going to interfere with anything.”
She also emphasized that an IUD does not require daily action like taking a pill and that the process is easy to reverse at any point in time. Due to their localized setting, hormonal IUDs have also been shown to have fewer side effects than estrogen-containing hormonal contraception methods.
“It’s basically giving women flexibility that they never had previously,” Young said.
“I think it’s like especially relevant [at Stanford],” Pearlson added. “There are a lot of women who have future goals of having careers and not necessarily starting to have kids until maybe they’re thirty or late twenties.”
Last quarter, the program scheduled over a dozen appointments with BCEs, and they also sold condom roses on Valentine’s Day to raise awareness. According to Young, their patients have been mostly graduate students but have also included a number of international students. They held their first information session at the end of February and had a turnout of six people.
“I think we weren’t really anticipating it to be very big so even having a couple people was really exciting for us,” Pearlson said. “There was a guy there which was really awesome. I think birth control is generally seen as a woman’s issue, and unfortunately, currently it mostly is.”
Senior Laura Pospisil ’14 explained that the information session made her more aware of the resources Stanford provides its students.
“I definitely think that more people should at least see what’s out there [for birth control],” Pospisil said. “I think there’s this assumption that people already know everything there is to know about sexual health, but…[the information session] filled in some [gaps] for me.”
Several other students who could not make the event contacted Pearlson and Young to learn more about scheduling an appointment.
“We actually got a lot of emails or text messages from people all over campus who had heard about it,” Young said. “It was just an exciting time because we just sent out this flyer and then suddenly it hit a lot of different lists that we didn’t expect.”
Pearlson and Young have also set up a website for students to sign up for appointments with BCEs.
“We’re going to start doing advertising at the start of spring quarter and start planning our training session,” Young said.
Since several of the current BCEs are graduating this year, Pearlson and Young explained that they are looking for new applicants. Although the current educators all have backgrounds in counseling or sexual health through other activities, they emphasized that the most important aspect of being a BCE is understanding the commitment to patients.
“Our goal is, by the time we graduate, to have it be a full-fledged program on campus with a strong connection to Vaden that will continue to run and be sustainable for coming years,” Young said. “We’re just trying to do the legwork for that to happen.”
Contact Kylie Jue at kyliej ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.