Health education a crucial aspect of freshman orientation

By Staff

Bunk beds, stress, sleepless nights, and pizza delivery at 1 a.m. often define college life for most students. Yet, for a smaller group of students, that definition also includes binge drinking, risky sexual behavior and drugs.

Every year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, more than 5,200 students enroll as first-year students. With unrealistic perspectives and definitions of college life, students are required to attend a two-day orientation to tie-up loose ends and allow CU staff to break down false perspectives.

"Orientation for incoming students focuses on what students need to get on track for the academic year, but also introduces prospective students to college life and what to expect," says Teresa Wroe, program development and evaluation coordinator in the division of Community Health at Wardenburg Student Health Center.

While students may think orientation is about making friends, playing flag football and registering for classes, it also includes a health education session about community involvement, stress, sleep, colds and flu, alcohol and sexual health – the main health issues that impede academic success.

Designed by Community Health as a pilot program, "I Wish I'd Known" was delivered by peer facilitators during the first night of orientation. Using recorded interviews of CU students discussing their campus experiences and advice, facilitators sought to help students gain a realistic perspective of life on campus.

The facilitators also discussed what to do if a friend passes out, time management strategies, the best places to study, and the importance of making campus connections early in their college careers.

"New student orientation is the one opportunity to give students information and resources about these issues to help them navigate college life and the CU campus," Wroe says. "This is also the only time when it is mandatory for students to attend educational sessions outside of the classroom."

This past summer, as Wroe and her team were developing "I Wish I'd Known" and incorporating new information about alcohol, Morgan Valley, a student at the Colorado School of Public Health was looking for an opportunity to complete her practice-based learning experience and capstone project at CU.

With extensive experience addressing alcohol in a college setting, Valley was given the opportunity to evaluate Community Health's new program and determine how the students received the information.

Valley conducted focus groups with 18 first-year students who attended orientation. During these sessions, students were asked to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the sessions and what information they've used in their first six weeks on campus. Many students brought up topics about being sick, experiencing bed bugs, and what they wished someone would have told them.

"A lot of students say there is dessert every night at the dining hall and that the freshman 15 is very real," explains Valley, a master of public health student in community and behavioral health. "Their advice for other students is to make wise food choices and to create better eating hours for themselves."

She then trained the focus group members to each conduct 20 interviews with other first-year students. These interviews asked students for their opinions about the health sessions as well as their advice for next year's class. The students conducted more than 360 interviews.

Her results suggest that women, students from Colorado and students who arrived on campus affiliated with an academic program received more of the presentations' content as intended than male, out-of-state and unaffiliated students. More than 65 percent of the students were affiliated with an academic program.

"It's been proven that students anchored in the community do better in school and are least likely to engage in harmful activities," Valley says. "The idea behind these educational sessions is to help student implement harm reduction strategies."

After doing the study, Valley says the sessions should devote more time to general wellness and community involvement. She found that students often requested more information about drugs, physical activity, nutrition, and methods to avoid colds and flu.

"The evaluation that Morgan conducted allowed us to get more in-depth feedback about the experience of students in our session," Wroe says. "We plan to use that to improve our program for next year. The only thing we don't have control over is when the session happens."

This past year, the health sessions were in the evenings after students had been lectured to all day. Valley received many comments about how late the sessions were and that the students just wanted to leave.

"While we definitely had a few students sleeping, most of them were excited to listen to other students talk about their personal experiences on campus," Valley says. "Whether students like it or not their health decisions now will stay with them the rest of their life and we need to make sure they have a positive experience beyond their courses."