Along with parental discussions, classroom lessons are just the beginning. At the end of middle school, motivated by my realization of how little my peers knew about healthy living and sex education, I was determined to become a peer health educator. My mentor, Nancy Brown, the manager of health education at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute of Sutter Health, has provided energetic support and guidance. With her help it became clear to me that there is a need for information to be delivered in a safe, caring, and trusted voice. There are many uninformed teens, yet this is due less to a lack of curiosity and interest than to a paucity of trusted voices and safe sources. Teens' questions and concerns have to be welcomed with respect. Peer education can provide one such arena.
For five years, I have worked on methods of improving public health education for young people, through helping develop the preteen Web site, "We're Talking Too!" (www.pamf.org/preteen), writing articles for Sutter Health's teen Web site, "We're Talking" (www.pamf.org/teen), and teaching peers in local classrooms.
With support from several grants, I played a role in writing and teaching two modules, one on bullying prevention (Bullies: Who, What, and Why) and one on healthy relationships for teens and teen educators (The ABCs of Healthy Relationships: Awareness, Balance, and Choices). Both help teens explore their curiosity, develop self-respect, and stay on track for college. I taught these modules in several local elementary, middle, and high schools. Most recently, in June, with my sister and co-author, Katie Ransohoff, we taught three middle school classes at East Palo Alto Charter School about bullying prevention and healthy relationships.
On the Web sites and in the classrooms, I have seen hundreds of my peers eager to learn about their health concerns, gain access to relevant information, and engage in expansive conversations. Many adults underestimate our generation's capacity to learn from its own members and the resources we have created for each other.
I am not alone in reaching out to my peers and modeling mutual respect and understanding, but the very fact that so many teens are not only willing to listen, but also to talk about health-related topics, signifies a positive step for our age group.
Although the predominant, heavily marketed image of teens these days is of mindless experimentation with sex, drugs, and alcohol, there is contrary evidence that suggests teens are engaging increasingly less in such behaviors. I am proud to contribute to my generation's knowledge and I hope that adults will help inform their teens, support school-based curricula, and respect the development and power of peer-to-peer health education.
Julia Ransohoff will be a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School when school re-opens this week.