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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Peer Educators Program Caring for its Campus Communty

By Karly Shimamoto

The Humanities Interim Classroom Facility (HICF), a humble cluster of trailers behind the towering Science Library at UCI, serves as more than just a temporary classroom setting every Wednesday from 3-5 PM. HICF, room K, has been transformed, the desks are set up in a half circle around the front of the classroom, leaving a large open space for the anticipated presentation, and colorful posters cover the walls. This is the weekly meeting of the UCI Peer Educators, where groups of four to five peers, present a “practice” workshop to their fellow peers, assistant coordinators, and their advisor.

This Wednesday at the Peer meeting the workshop for Test Anxiety, Stress, and Study Skills is being presented. While people still straggle in, a few of the peers discuss an episode of the popular TV show, Glee. After the last of the posters have been hurriedly taped to the walls the room grows quiet and the four presenters introduce themselves and their topic, which is also written largely and boldly at the front of the room on a large piece of paper, covering the blackboard. All of these posters are related to the topic and some include “All-Nighter Dos” and “All Nighter Don’ts,” there are also encouraging quotes spread throughout the room, such as “Victory belongs to the most pereserving.” –Napoleon Bonaparte.

Before all of the information is presented the presenters ask their audience to stand up in order to play an icebreaker game. The group gathers around in a circle. One of the presenters introduces the game as “Is there Someone Like Me?” One person starts on the inside of the circle and asks a question beginning with the phrase “Is there someone like me who’s worried about…,” in this case the girl in the middle asks if anyone is worried about finals. Those around her in the circle that agree raise their hand and quickly switch places in the circle. The game is similar to musical chairs, but without the chairs. The game goes on for about ten minutes. After the group sits down again one of the peers explains the point of the game was to show that they aren’t alone in their worries and stress. This theme of not being alone and knowing that others are in similar situations is carried on throughout the meeting. The peers then begin to hand out a nineteen-page packet that contains all of the information that they are going to be talking about. The first page lists what the students should learn by the end of the workshop which include: ‘What is test anxiety,’ ‘How to manage stress,’ and ‘How to overcome test anxiety.’ The entire workshop is very interactive with the presenters regularly asking the group to stand up and participate.

The students mill around the room taking down pictures of food that are taped to the walls, and place them on top of a large picture of a lunch pail or a large garbage can, indicating whether or not that type of food is a good choice to eat while studying.

The presenters even showcase some of their acting skills as they portray the symptoms of test anxiety, one of the girls begins to act as if she is hyperventilating, a physical symptom of stress, while the others act out emotional, behavioral, or cognitive symptoms. This mini skit elicits amused laughs from their audience. At the end of the workshop the presenters receive a well-earned applause and they join the others in their half circle.

The Peers and Coordinators are basically running the show at this meeting but to the side of the room an older man with white hair, in a blue shirt and khakis, occasionally comments and gives advice, but for the most part sits back and watches the peers and the coordinators handle the meeting.

The Founder

This man is Dr. Ken Caillet, fondly known as Dr. C by the students, the Couseling Center’s Senior Staff Psychologist as well as the founder and advisor of the Peer Educators program. He is a licensed psychologist and received his Ph.D from USC. Even as an undergraduate in Ohio, as a biological sciences major with minors in chemistry and physics, he harbored a genuine interest in psychology, reading books about the subject in his free time. This interest led him to pursue clinical psychology as a career. This is his thirty-sixth year working with students in psychology and his twenty-fourth year working at UCI, the prior twelve years he spent working at Cal State Long Beach. His responsibilities as Senior Staff Psychologist include providing clinical services to students through individual, couples, or group work. Dr. Caillet was prompted to create the Peer Educators program fourteen years ago because of the lack of a peer group representing the Counseling Center. He also wanted to grab the opportunity for students to reach out to other students. This is of special importance to Dr. Caillet because of the interest he had had his entire career for training students to work with other students.

Dr. Caillet created the program to serve as a form of primary prevention. Primary prevention can be applied to medical conditions as well as mental health issues. A publication released by the World Health Organization, called “Primary prevention of mental, neurological and psychological disorders,” describes primary prevention as “methods designed to avoid the occurrence of a specific disorder or groups of disorders. It compromises those measures applicable to a particular disease or group of diseases in order to intercept their cause before they affect people.” This principle of primary prevention is carried out in the program in the form of the workshops. The peers present information to students that would give them knowledge about how to deal with the issues that are discussed if they do ever come up, or in order to help someone they know dealing with that issue.

The Behind-the-Scenes Workers

Last year was the first year of the Peer Educators program that more people wanted to be assistant coordinators, or coords for short, for the program than there were spaces available. In order to become a coord you must have already been a peer. Through an application process this process six coords were chosen, Alex Uzdavines, Joyce Lopez, Priya Chakrabarti, Rachel Stromgren, Shireen Noori, and Theresa Nguyen. The majority of them graduated last year and are taking a year off to apply for graduate school.

The coords take on many of the day-to-day administrative tasks that help to maintain the program. These responsibilities include planning out the Peer meetings on Wednesdays, creating a schedule for the program as a whole, and assigning homework and due dates to the peers. The average time commitment per week is five hours. This includes the weekly coord meetings where all six coordinators meet together with Dr. Caillet to go over what is going on with the program. Dr. Caillet placed a lot of importance on letting the coords take the reigns in leading the program and taking on a lot of the leadership responsibilities.

Bonding and teambuilding is a large component of the program, this is seen in the breaking up of, in most cases, two peers and one coord into “families.” This occurs in order for the peers to build up a closer relationship with at least one of the coords and another peer.

Each coord brings a unique quality to the program as a whole, and their personalities are really able to shine through as they advise and guide the peers through the program. The coords all bring with them their experiences and it’s these that really help to make the program unique.

Alex Uzdavines graduated from UCI last year with a degree in Psychology and Social Behavior. He had participated as a peer in the program his senior year and decided to apply to be coord in order to supplement his résumé, but also because he figured he had the year off while applying to graduate schools, and he felt that he could excel in the coordinator position, apparently so did Dr. Caillet. Alex brings an invaluable amount of experience and empathy to the table particularly for those dealing with issues related to suicide. He recently spoke at the annual National Survivors of Suicide Day Conference, as a panelist. This year the conference was held at UCI’s student center. The conference, hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, brought out friends and family of those who had committed suicide in order to honor their loved ones and show support for each other. The day consisted of a video of a discussion between five individuals, all left with the burden of dealing with a loved one’s suicide, a time of sharing from the attendees, and sharing from the panelists. It was an intensely emotional and exposing experience. When it was his turn to speak Alex shared, among other things, his personal experience with suicide.

Both of Alex’s parents committed suicide, his father when Alex was six years old, and his mother when he was nineteen. His father’s suicide was of course sad for him at the time but he didn’t completely understand what had happened. It was his mother’s suicide that hit him the hardest. Alex was one month into a three month study abroad program in Florence, Italy. At this time he was at a community college in San Diego, he had finished high school, after getting his state diploma, when he was sixteen. This semester abroad was meant to be his last before he transferred to UCSD. On October 1, 2002 Alex received a phone call to tell him that his mom had died while walking with some friends to a bus stop. Alex recalls, “It was a weird, surreal moment. It’s always a surreal moment when you get a phone call like that, but this was like extra. It just started to rain, and it wasn’t just a drizzle, it was a rainstorm, next to this grand black and white marble cathedral [the Duomo of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral], waiting for the bus, it’s like it’s out of a movie, really extra dramatic.” Alex fell to his knees, unable to move. “You’re powerless enough when it happens even if it happens right there in front of you. There’s nothing you can do, but boy howdy there was really nothing I could do. I was 6,000 miles away, across an ocean.” He was unable to get a flight back to San Diego for three days. Until then he had to wait and just be in Florence.

When he got back home there were a lot of funeral arrangements, and while he had his two cousins who came down from Sacramento to help him with the arrangements, the final decisions for everything fell on him. Alex comments, “Going and picking out a casket for your mom when your 19 is fucking weird.” Despite all of this Alex was able to get through the planning process but needless to say the emotional burden lingered heavily on him.

Three months later in January of 2003, as he left to get lunch on his break from his job as a computer lab assistant at his community college, he had a nervous breakdown of sorts. As soon as he got into his car he started crying uncontrollably. He says, “I knew I was going to die in the next hour of just literally panic attack.” He explains that this is what it feels like when people have panic attacks. Alex elaborates on the idea he had that he was going to die: “There’s no rationality. It’s completely an irrational mental state, but you know at this deep level. It’s fucking weird.” This is when Alex decided that he needed some type of counseling, so his best friend’s mother referred him to a family friend who was a therapist. Alex saw this therapist once every other week and he believes it was extremely beneficial.

Alex now has this take on his history and experiences: “Nothing I can do can un-happen it…I’m still going to be around for another 60 to 80 years. If it’s haunting me for that entire time, I’m screwed. I won’t be a person. I will just be defined by that event and I refuse to do that. It’s not an anger thing or angry with my parents or anything either. It’s just, you know, I’m going to be me.” With this attitude Alex is able to use his experiences and personal background to guide and help others particularly when it comes to hard issues such as suicide.

During this quarter, given that the actual peers are not allowed to present workshops to other students yet, Alex and one of his fellow coords gave a workshop on Communication to the Psychology Student Association. The workshop was a success, although Alex gave part of the credit to the enthusiastic and motivated group of students they presented to.

Alex also recalls a past workshop experience that the current peers can now look forward to. “It was during fall quarter and I was still pretty new to being a peer. We were doing a Communication Skills workshop for one of the halls in Middle Earth [an on-campus housing community] and it was just crazy. We were expecting maybe twenty people and there ended up being forty people crammed in there. They were freshman and acted like it; totally loud and unruly. Some of the folks I was with that day didn't really know what to do with a crowd like that, but Theresa [another coord] and I are pretty good crowd controllers and were able to get things at least running, if not smoothly. It was crazy, but really fun.”

There are also times when Alex remembers when the workshop atmosphere would become very tense when more serious issues were discussed, issues such as suicide and depression. “You can tell that people are uncomfortable with our heavy topics and it might be the first time they've really talked about them. It's why I try and emphasize discussion during those so much. If people get the chance to talk they can usually soothe themselves and others with their own stories.”

Alex is only one though of many within the program and each person within the program has something to offer, a skill set that can be utilized to further the program. This diversity and individuality is particularly evident among the peers.

The Faces of the Program

Dr. Caillet mentioned how the dynamics of the Peer Educators program in terms of teamwork is very similar to that of a basketball team. He gives the example of the LA Lakers six years ago in the NBA Finals when they were up against the Detroit Pistons. He comments that no one would have disagreed that the Lakers clearly had the stronger team based solely on individual talent, yet they lost in five games. He attributes, as do many others, this defeat to the fact that while the Lakers could not play as a team, the Pistons were able to. The point of his analogy is to say that you could have all of the talent in the world but if you cannot put that talent to use as a team and work together, the program as a whole goes nowhere. One of the peers, Sang Do, exemplifies this ideal of teamwork when he says, “I'm growing increasingly confident in presenting workshops knowing that I have my fellow peers to rely on while planning to dedicate enough time to understand the topics-to-be-presented well.

This year Dr. Caillet’s ‘team’ consists of thirteen players: Amber Teel, Christa Angles, Elyssa Goodside, Fran Chicas, Francesca Lomotan, Gizelle Orellanna, Hanna Schultheis-Gerry, Jerren Ferguson, Kathy Nguyen, Kenneth Han, Patriscia Gandasutisna, Sang Do, and Titania Tran. The group is diverse in ethnicity and personality. It was easy to spot superficial differences in personality during the icebreaker that was played in Wednesday’s meeting. This mix up of personalities, backgrounds, and ethnicities is what Dr. Caillet and the coordinators are looking for in a group. The common factor that ties them all together however is their willingness to work as a team and their ability to work in a group setting towards a common goal.

Hanna Schultheis-Gerry is a third year Drama major. During Wednesday’s meeting she was by far the most participative audience member. She first heard about the program through an email that was sent out during the middle of last school year’s winter quarter. She was interested in becoming a peer educator for multiple reasons. She had not had a great experience her freshman year at UCI. “It was really stressful coming into a new environment. Like going from being a rock star singer in high school and then being a lowly freshman who doesn’t know anything.” She dormed in the Middle Earth freshman housing community, but the adjustment she had to make, particularly coming from the Bay Area, caused her to lose her voice, which was a serious issue because of her major and her passion for theater and singing.

After starting to go to the Counseling Center during her freshman year she felt her situation was improving. She had tried alternative forms of therapy as well such as acupuncture and hypnotherapy, but it seems as if going to the Counseling Center was the most beneficial for her. “I believe in counseling, I’ve experienced it myself and I know it works, and why not make the world better.”

Hanna acknowledges that at first the peers were shy and awkward around each other, but mentions how the bonding activities they participated in really helped to bring them closer to together. She says, “We went from classmates to homies, you know…It takes away the stress of actually trying to put on workshops…”

As the quarter is coming to a close and the prospect of actually putting on workshops for students looms close by Hanna feels like, “…finally all of our hard work is going to be paying off…You [can] feel like you’re making a difference and that’s what I really want to get out of this, you know, that’s why I’m here.” She also hopes to grow personally, in gaining more confidence, becoming more independent, and learning to take more initiative in everyday life.

Sang Do is also a third-year, but his major is in Psychology and Social Behavior with a minor in Educational Studies. Sang’s hands never stop moving as he speaks, he gestures constantly, with each word he says. He aspires to be a high school counselor, although recently he has thought about becoming a psychologist. If he were to become a counselor however, he mentions he would like to work with disabled students, particularly the hearing impaired. Sang’s motivation behind this is that both of his parents were born deaf, the constant hand gestures makes sense now. Sang, feels a bit disconnected from his parents because of the lack of communication. He picked up some sign language growing up, but the conversation he is able to have with his parents is still superficial. He wants to take classes in sign language in order to be able to have deeper conversations with his parents and to get to know them better. He says, “For me when I thought about becoming a high school counselor, you know, I thought that this is something I would be really passionate about, just really helping people develop their own passions.” His optimism and willingness to help others is evident in the way he talks about his motivation what he wants out of a career, “I would really love to just be able to help people, in terms of helping them develop and become better.”

Sang feels that his participation in the Peer Educators program would benefit him in either career field as a psychologist or counselor.

Right now as he thinks about the prospect of having to actually present the workshops to other students he says, “I think I am generally nervous in presenting workshops to other students, but I will do my best to communicate the workshop topic the best that I can and try not to focus on my individual performance too much--it's about

educating our peers, and as long as I focus on this goal, I feel the students can gain more from the workshop.”

With peers like Hanna, who has had positive experiences with UCI’s Counseling Center and now wants to use what she has learned after bouncing back from a very challenging time during her freshman year to help other students, and Sang, who’s passion and commitment to guiding others towards realizing their own potential, it’s clear to see that Dr. Caillet has assembled an immensely capable and qualified team for the 2010-2011 school year.

Beyond the Workshops

The Peers are involved in a variety of other responsibilities that are a part of the program. They are obligated to participate in quarterly fundraising events that the program puts on. The fundraising events for this quarter included a fundraiser at Gina’s Pizza, where part of the proceeds of a customer’s purchase, after presenting a flyer to the cashier, would go to the program. The peers also put up a stand along Ring Road from which they sold carne asada tacos.

The Peers also are responsible for a minimum of three hours of ‘flyering,’ which is comprised of Peers standing out on Ring Road, with the ever-popular job of passing out flyers to students who usually really don’t want what is being pushed towards them. This can be an unpleasant task for anyone, since the feeling of rejection seems to come with the territory. However, Sang takes a different approach to this generally annoying task. He sees it as an opportunity to get the word out to people about the services that the Counseling Center has to offer, and doesn’t mind the job at all.

Sang stands in front of the Physical Science Lecture Hall. It’s mid-afternoon and he approaches a couple of students, asking them if they would like some information about the Counseling Center. They both take a pamphlet from him. A few minutes later he approaches a young man, asking him the same question. The man refuses. Sang maintains his upbeat offering of pamphlets. If he is feeling a sense of rejection it cannot be easily seen as he walks up to another group of students to offer them the pamphlets. Sang approaches another young man walking by himself, this time the student actually stops and asks Sang about the program. Sang enthusiastically tells him about the Counseling Center and the Peer Educators program. That was the first time that a student actually stopped to talk to him about what he was passing out.

Sang describes the feeling of genuine happiness that he feels when students take a pamphlet from him and seem to him to be sincerely interested in the program and the services that the Counseling Center provides. “I am most excited about helping people and potentially affecting our peers' lives in a positive way. I hope to create the same impact on other students as it did on me last year.”

So while UCI students do have mile-a-minute lives, and as they bustle quickly from class to class you can never really know when someone would truly benefit from what Sang and the entire Peer Educators program has to offer. It is certainly reassuring to know that amidst all the stress and challenges that come with college there are people, our fellow peers, that are genuinely interested in the well-being of their campus community.

Reporting Log:

Lengthy Interview with Alex Uzdavines, a Peer Coordinator

Interview with Dr. Ken Caillet, founder and advisor of Peer Educators program

Interviews with Hanna Schultheis-Gerry and Sang Do, Peer Educators

2 hour observation of Peer Educators meeting

4 hours observation at National Survivors of Suicide Conference

Observation of Peer Educator ‘flyering’ on Ring Road

Test Anxiety, Stress, and Study Skills Packet

Friends Helping Friends and Counseling Center Pamphlets

Last year’s Peer Educator Application

Internet research on primary prevention as it relates to mental health

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