Students kickstart initiative to reach more minority students in health services

Marjorie S. Miller
May 02, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A group of Penn State students have started an effort to bring awareness of and encourage the use of health and wellness services among minority students on campus. 

A new component of HealthWorks, the Minority Health Initiative, was created to educate students on the resources available to them by HealthWorks and to provide them with a safe place to talk about unique issues and concerns. 

“Minority students don’t always use these resources or feel they are being represented,” said Dejah Harley, a senior biobehavioral health major, and co-creator of the initiative. 

HealthWorks is run under Health Promotion and Wellness, a resource supported by Penn State Student Affairs. HealthWorks is a peer education and outreach program that offers one-on-one peer-based wellness services to students, provides workshops on various health topics and coordinates outreach initiatives for the student body. Students receive training to become peer educators. 

Harley is passionate about this initiative because she’s not only a peer educator, she’s also a minority student. She knows firsthand the challenges many minority students face when it comes to fitting in and feeling represented. 

“Minority students may feel uncomfortable bringing up racism or discrimination they face in class or on campus,” Harley said.

Minority Health Initiative’s first event, “Black Health Matters,” involved a black history educational booth at the HUB-Robeson Center. Students who came by the booth were encouraged to share their feelings on race-related topics, or their opinions on politics and current events, by writing on index cards. The index cards were then posted on a board behind the booth. Students filled in the query, “I feel some type of way when …” Some students wrote about personal experiences with racism, and others wrote about gun control. The other side of the board read, "I feel empowered when..." For that, students wrote about positive experiences embracing their culture. 

Marley Shaw, a sophomore biobehavioral health major, who also is a creator of the initiative, said she hopes the Minority Health Initiative will encourage students of all backgrounds to talk with one another about race-related topics and issues. 

“Until there is a conversation on both sides, it won’t make a difference,” Shaw said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions; that’s where the change happens.”

All HealthWorks peer educators have to complete a course through the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH) in the College of Health and Human Development. 

The “HealthWorks Peer Education course," BBH 324, provides students with the skills and knowledge needed to provide health promotion programming and wellness services, said Linda LaSalle, director of Health Promotion and Wellness. 

“Until there is a conversation on both sides, it won’t make a difference. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; that’s where the change happens.”

— Marley Shaw, biobehavioral health major

Content has been added to this course on health disparities in the United States in the last two years, from race, to age, to education level.

“We hope peer educators will use this knowledge to better inform and support the student population,” LaSalle said. 

Harley, Shaw and others also have spearheaded more programs and activities for minority students. In collaboration with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the College of Health and Human Development, the group hosted a “Women of Color Health Workshop” in March, which provided a group discussion of health and wellness in minority women. The topics included mental and physical health, stress and others.

Another idea the group has is to create a cooking class for minority students that would involve learning how to make culturally-specific recipes.

“This cooking class would be a great addition to the content we already provide,” LaSalle said.

“These students are really invested in increasing awareness of health disparities in the United States and also awareness of the services available to minority students,” LaSalle said. “They are really impressive students.”

Additionally, Health Promotion and Wellness has its own efforts to increase awareness of its programs offered and to recruit minority students for its peer education program. This involves reaching out to culturally diverse student groups, as well as visiting classrooms to spread the word and encourage participation, LaSalle said. 

Health Promotion and Wellness offers a variety of services for students, including: alcohol intervention and marijuana intervention programs that are free of charge for students who do not have an alcohol or marijuana-related violation; a free nutrition clinic where students can meet with a registered dietitian; free smoking cessation services; free HIV testing; educational programming, and free peer-led wellness services. 

Currently there are about 40 to 50 HealthWorks volunteers. In the 2017-18 academic year, students provided 394 appointments for wellness services; 2,000 students attended workshops; and more than 3,500 attended outreach events, said Stacy Jones, assistant director and clinical dietitian in Health Promotion and Wellness.

Jones said Harley and Shaw are driven and self-motivated to bring more minority representation to HealthWorks. “They came to me with the idea, and they already had it all figured out,” she said. “I just helped them put their plan into action.”

Health Promotion and Wellness’ mission is to increase awareness and knowledge of health issues, such as sexual health, nutrition and fitness, wellness, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, and body image and eating. For more information visit

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Last Updated May 02, 2018