By Kira Córdova
Izzy Stollsteimer (she/her/hers) brings a passion for wellness and an empathetic, down to earth student lens to her role as a Western peer health educator.
In 2022, the Colorado Department of Higher Education recognized Western as a Healthy Minds Campus. That designation broadcasts that a university is taking steps to combat mental health challenges for students, staff, and faculty. To earn it, campuses must implement mental health awareness programs and specialized initiatives.
At Western, in addition to programming like the annual Wellness Fest and the implementation of universal free mental telehealthcare for students through Timely Care, one of the qualifying initiatives is the peer health educator program.
But what, exactly, does a peer health educator (PHE) do?
The role of Western’s peer health educators
According to the resource section of Western’s 2023 student handbook, “as a component of the Student Health and Wellness Office, Peer Health Educators work to reduce binge drinking among college students, implement strategies to reduce high-risk drinking among students and provide educational programs through partnerships with campus and community organizations.”
The 2023 annual security policies and report offers a broader description: “PHEs work to reduce stigmas, increase the culture of health-seeking behaviors, reduce substance abuse and support the physical, social and emotional well-being of their peers.”
In practice, PHEs are sophomore students and above in good academic standing that work to promote campus health and harm reduction programs.
“I am a student on campus who talks to other students about how to be healthy, and that ranges from physical health to mental health to overall well-being and sense of belonging. I help with resources and I help give people a voice [and provide] a space for listening,” explains Izzy Stollsteimer, a senior from Montrose serving as one of three PHEs on campus this year.
Izzy works closely with Western’s associate director of Community Wellness McKenzie Mathewson, who has taken enthusiastically to expanding wellness education and harm reduction initiatives during her first year in the role.
Mathewson also works with the two other peer health educators — Holly Hunter and Ryan Smith — and says that their varied experiences allow them to tackle a wide range of issues.
“Our community of health educated people is so beautiful because we offer different skills. We offer different times. We offer different experiences, which then leads to how people approach using the resources that we have to offer. We cover a lot of ground, and that’s the beauty of it.”
That includes harm reduction initiatives, which can be anything from providing free protection (condoms, dental dams, and female condoms), Narcan, and menstrual products for students to knocking on dorm doors and personally checking on students’ mental health.
“Harm reduction is a huge aspect,” Stollsteimer says. “It’s really the first step in helping people realize that maybe they need help, maybe they need that connection [to tackle challenges they’re facing].”
But helping people isn’t always easy, something Stollsteimer has discovered in the past two months as a new PHE:
“Pushback always happens. I see it a lot with mental health, using Timely Care. A lot of people don’t want to talk about using Timely Care. There’s a stigma around therapy, which I find very interesting because, as a student, I know that life gets so overwhelming that you don’t know what to do, and sometimes it can be hard to reach out to families. Sometimes it can be hard to reach out to friends because you don’t want people thinking differently about you.”
“We’re pushing [harm reduction] with Timely Care and all these other campus resources to give people a safe space to interact and belong and feel valid.”
Putting wellness into practice
Thus far, Stollsteimer says the most difficult part of her role as a PHE is balancing harm reduction with university policy.
“The most challenging part so far, I think, is saying things correctly in context. There’s a lot of blurred lines when it comes to health, only because we’re at a university setting that is federally funded, so you have to be careful about what things you’re promoting and how you’re promoting [them]. For example, we have a sex week coming up, and we’re trying to promote healthy relationships, healthy sex, healthy lifestyle,” relays Stollsteimer.
There’s way more to the peer health educator role than just harm reduction, and Izzy notes that her favorite part of her job is running the Mountaineer Marketplace, Western’s on-campus food pantry for students.
“I love seeing our student body be able to get food for free, knowing the cost of groceries and how expensive it really is to live [here], so that’s been so gratifying to see everyone come in and use that as a resource,” she says.
The marketplace, located on the south side of the on-campus Pinnacles apartments behind the fire pit and open Mondays and Thursdays 12:30 to 2 p.m., is new this year, made possible by a partnership with the Gunnison Country Food Pantry that aims to provide food that college students can easily prepare in the facilities they have access to, which often don’t include a kitchen.
PHEs intimately understand and recognize needs like providing food that students can store in minifridges and then cook in microwaves because they’ve had the same experiences. As a former RA and a third-year student, Stollsteimer has been around the proverbial block, and can tailor programming to student needs.
Striking a healthy balance
Izzy also understands the fundamental stress of being a student and being pulled in a million different directions.
Her passion for helping students helps her balance her PHE role and a full-time school schedule, but she’s also deeply grateful for the communities and support systems that enable her to be happy, healthy, and effective.
“To care so deeply about the world around you, you have to care deeply about yourself and your sense of belonging. For me, it’s a lot of the passion for the work that I’m doing. I really love helping, and I can see that directly translating, so it’s really easy for me to keep giving and keep loving,” she says, adding: “But finding the balance is key.”
“So, for me a lot of that stress reduction, a lot of that happiness and intrinsic need and feeling like I belong comes from simple things like my partner and my animals and having an identity as a student. Then there’s pursuing things I love such as writing and being the president of Word Horde. That is such a beautiful, lovely thing that I feel blessed to be a part of. It’s things like that that just really do foster that sense of community. I don’t need to suffer alone because I know we’re all [in this together] at that crazy point in the semester.”
Stollsteimer’s wisdom for other students is to lean into the resources and opportunities at Western to find their own communities and support systems to help them.
“It is difficult to come out of a shell, whether that’s a shell of [your] own identity you’ve given yourself or the shell of other people’s perspective of you, [but] I think that trying something at least once, whether it be therapy or whether that means you go out on a trip with wilderness pursuits or you meet with an EPIC [mentor], getting involved and getting out of the comfort zone is important.”
Connecting with PHEs
Stollsteimer is slated to graduate in May, but that doesn’t mean she’s done promoting wellness.
“I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing in May when I graduate,” she says. “I am looking into the Master of Behavioral Science [program] here to continue my work with the pantry and peer health education. It’s definitely a goal that I look to grow after graduation, [getting] another degree. I see school as an active part of my life for years to come.
Izzy’s office hours as a PHE are Mondays from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Trailhead (located in the University Center next to the Multicultural Center).
Can’t make those hours? Holly Hunter’s PHE office hours are 9:45 to 10:45 AM on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 2 to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays in the Trailhead. Plus, there’s usually a PHE hanging out in the Office of Student Health and Wellness (University Center 103).
Resources for students and others in need
In crisis? Call 911 or the Colorado Crisis Services Hotline at 1-844-493 TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. The hotline has trained professionals available for free, immediate, and confidential help 24/7, 265 days a year.
The GVH emergency room is located at 711 N. Taylor St. and can page the Mental Health Emergency Professional on call.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273 TALK (8255) (para Español: 888-628-9484).
TimelyCare TalkNow on-demand support service is available through the TimelyCare app. Students can log in and access the free service with their Western login.
Safe Ride runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and can be reached at 970-209-RIDE (7433)
The Office of Student Health and Wellness is located in University Center 103