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Sex, Drugs, and How to Talk about Them

Peer Health Exchange: straight talk to high schoolers


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In the slideshow above, Rachel Preloh (CAS’12) and Sharmin Akhter (CAS’12) discuss their experiences as Peer Health Exchange teachers. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Sharmin Akhter and Rachel Preloh feel a bit like circus jugglers. They’re standing in front of a ninth grade classroom at Cambridge’s Prospect Hill Academy trying to teach an important health lesson, keep the students entertained, and stem the eruption of all-out chaos.

Not an easy task, especially considering the topics about to be addressed.

“What is the definition of sex, according to Peer Health Exchange?” Akhter (CAS’12) asks a team of students.

One girl shouts the answer—oral, anal, or vaginal sex or genital-to-genital contact. Akhter and Preloh (CAS’12) award the team one point.

Another girl across the room wonders aloud, “Is that with or without clothes on?”

“Without,” they tell her.

The two young educators are among 92 Boston University student volunteers for Peer Health Exchange, a nationwide nonprofit that trains college students to teach health education for one year in local schools. The Boston program includes schools from Cambridge and West Roxbury to Brighton and Hyde Park.

The volunteers are sent only to those schools that qualify for the program—those lacking comprehensive health education programs and serving mostly students from low-income households. In Boston, it turns out, qualifying is the easy part: every city school except Boston Latin meets the grim standards.

Molly Greene, executive director of the Boston program, says when PHE launched in Boston in 2006, BU and Harvard were its first partners, together mustering 100 volunteers to teach 650 ninth graders in seven high schools. Since then, the numbers have exploded, and PHE now recruits 380 students from six local colleges and serves 3,300 students in 31 high schools.

“Our goal is to reach every kid in the schools,” says Greene.

Peer Health Exchange organizers will fan out across campus beginning Sunday, August 29, to recruit students. Competition at BU is tough; of 150 applicants last year, only 60 were accepted.

New student educators must attend a weekend training retreat in October and join returning volunteers for weekly sessions focusing on specific health topics, public speaking, classroom management, and public school orientation.

Each ninth grade class receives 12 lessons, often from a different pair of student volunteers each week, addressing topics like sexual health, STDs, HIV and AIDS, nutrition, and drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.

The 50-minute sessions follow the same pattern, Greene explains. Students begin with a “Do-Now” activity, this one asking them to review important lessons learned during the course, to get them thinking about the day’s topic. A brief lecture and discussion may follow, usually including an interactive game to hook students.

For Akhter and Preloh, standing in front of 19 visibly disengaged ninth graders, the big challenge is getting their attention.

A good 10 minutes passes before a lull occurs and the class settles. A third of the students haven’t opened their Peer Health Exchange notebooks. Some heads rest on desks.

Akhter and Preloh introduce themselves and move quickly through the “Do-Now” activity before dividing the class into three teams. Each takes a stack of note cards and quizzes the teams on material they’ve covered in past sessions.

“What do you do if your friend passes out from taking drugs or alcohol?” Akhter asks.

“Call 9-1-1,” says Team 2, because it’s a medical emergency. A girl in Team 1 advises giving the friend water.

While Preloh awards Team 2 the point, Akhter explains that water will help with dehydration, but will not solve this possible life-or-death situation.

“How often should you get tested for STDs?”

One student pipes up: once a year or after changing sexual partners. Preloh awards the point.

But another student isn’t so sure: “Is that true?” She favors trusting a new partner’s word that he’s clean.

“He could be lying to you,” Akhter replies. “There’s nothing to lose, so why not?”

The girl’s friends agree, but she’s not convinced. The topic may have hit too close to home. “We’re not talking about it, not talking about it,” she says, literally shaking off the idea.

“What are the two body parts most affected by drug use?”

“The brain!” one student shouts. Correct.

“The liver.” Akhter shakes her head. “The kidneys.” Nope. “The lungs.” Negative. “The glands!”

Akhter says with a big smile, “The heart!” O-oh, right.

The contest ends in a tie, with two teams claiming bragging rights. Akhter and Preloh next guide the class through a skit about sticking to a decision not to drink alcohol. (Students choose the plot and main characters: Bon Qui Qui and Shaquida.)

Just after Preloh and Akhter wrap up the session, a student sneaks in a question of her own: what should you do if you think your friend is drinking too much?

Akhter advises taking the friend through PHE’s five-step decision process, learned over the past year.

“They may not decide to change,” Akhter says. “But that’s their decision.”

For those interested in volunteering with Peer Health Exchange, applications are due by 5 p.m. on September 12. Email questions about the program to buphe@peerhealthexchange.org

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

This story was originally published May 19, 2010. 


9 Comments on Sex, Drugs, and How to Talk about Them

  • Anonymous on 05.19.2010 at 9:13 am

    Boston latin refernce

    as a BU student and BLS alum, I wasn’t too impressed with the sex education I receieved there; it did emphasize abstinance heavily. I realize other schools are in need that have no programs whatsoever, but as Peer Health Exchange expands, looking into the curriculum there and see if they think they can make any positive changes there.

  • Anonymous on 05.19.2010 at 9:26 am

    Maybe I wasn't properly educated myself

    … but can someone please explain how genital to genital contact can involve the mouth? Are these kids contortionists?

    I hope this *isn’t* the correct answer according the Peer Health Exchange, or some of the ninth-graders are going to end up confused exactly where they need to be clear.

  • Anonymous on 05.19.2010 at 9:43 am


    its just a misquotation, the real answer is “PHE defines sex as oral, anal, or vaginal sex, and genital-to-genital contact”

  • Anonymous on 05.19.2010 at 9:59 am

    Right answer

    the actual answer is “PHE defines sex as having oral, anal, or vaginal sex or genital-to-genital contact”

  • Leslie Friday on 05.19.2010 at 10:40 am

    Change to be made

    Thanks for the correction on the definition. That will soon be changed in the text.

  • PHE Alum on 05.19.2010 at 1:28 pm


    Re: Maybe I wasn’t properly educated myself

    Genital to genital contact is exactly what it sounds like, thus it doesn’t involve the mouth. Some STD’s e.g. herpes, can be transmitted via G to G contact.

  • Anonymous on 05.25.2010 at 3:43 am

    it seems that we’ve got a long way 2 go in other places of the world.

  • sam on 07.04.2010 at 1:31 pm


    can you define genital for me? i support the sex education in schools. it is needed badly. it should be started in our asian countries too…….

  • Anonymous on 05.25.2011 at 10:54 am

    Sex education

    The sex education is a very good thing and should be generalized in schools and high schools because it allows to ask questions and to approach subjects which are sometimes complicated in family!


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