Having worked together for the last several years to expand Blair’s health and wellness curriculum during Blair’s academic day, Erin Fortunato and Andee Ryerson teamed up in 2019-2020 to create a non-curricular group that seeks to create positive change on campus by focusing on peer health education.
In its inaugural year, Be Well @ Blair includes nine juniors and seniors who, according to the mission statement they drafted during a planning retreat during preseason last year, “strive to be supportive, reliable, trusting, relatable and open-minded.” Their goals include taking a hands-on approach to spreading knowledge, positively influencing peers, and promoting individual and community-wide well-being.
All In, All Together
The genesis of the group began in a meeting related to the health-and-wellness pillar of Blair’s strategic plan for 2019-2025, All In. As Mrs. Fortunato, the school’s health-and-wellness coordinator and a member of the Head of School’s office, listened to colleagues talk about ways to incorporate more health education into curricular and co-curricular opportunities, she zeroed in on peer health education as a particularly impactful option.
“We knew students are interested in this, and there is a lot of research that shows peer education is effective in changing behavior, especially in college,” she said. “While there aren’t a ton of studies right now focusing on high schoolers, we do know that kids are much more likely to take the same information an adult offers them from a fellow teenager and feel like it is more applicable to their lives.”
Given that the programming of Be Well @ Blair is entirely student generated also makes the group’s work feel more relevant to campus life. “Students are looking around and saying, ‘These are the unhealthy choices I see people making, and I want to do something about it,’” said Mrs. Ryerson.
When Mrs. Fortunato and Mrs. Ryerson first announced to the community that they’d be accepting applications for the group in 2019, they were pleasantly surprised that so many students expressed candid interest in becoming involved: In fact, they were only able to accept a third of the students who applied.
During their first meetings last September, they immediately got to work, focusing on group management and facilitation, generating ideas and goals, and honing in on the idea of planning dorm health-and-wellness seminars to educate community members about different topics.
Increasing Sleep; Minimizing Stress
Once the school year got underway, the group began gathering every Friday after School Meeting, ultimately settling on the Romano Dining Hall as their meeting spot. Activities over the course of the fall semester ranged from offering advice and organizational supplies to freshman embarking on their Blair careers and considering a “screentime challenge” to decrease the negative effects of mobile device preoccupation to designing posters with sleep tips for classmates and executing very successful seminars on sleep and stress to residents of Insley Hall, South Cottage and Freeman Hall.
In addition to imparting lessons about health-and-wellness, Mrs. Fortunato and Mrs. Ryerson have been gratified to see how much group members have learned about work ethic, project management, public speaking and content creation. Their next undertaking will be a student-driven Sunday Evening Reflection on February 23 that will explore sleep, stress and mindfulness.
In fact, it is the opportunity to find creative ways to educate the Blair community about health-related issues that students have most enjoyed. “We emphasize outreach to the student body to establish Be Well @ Blair as an accessible resource for wellness-related information on campus,” said Abby Morris ’20. “I hope that students are aware of the group's purpose and feel comfortable approaching group members to seek advice or ask questions. This peer-to-peer style of health education allows for casual conversations, complementing the more rigid structure of a health class.”
Dividing & Conquering the Work
In sitting down with the group’s two advisors, it is clear that their strengths are very complimentary: Mrs. Fortunato brings to bear a bachelor’s degree in biology from Trinity College (1998) and a master’s degree in public health from Boston University (2007) and many years working as a health educator and researcher focused on adolescents. Mrs. Ryerson, on the other hand, was deeply involved in peer health education as a student at Amherst College and has gained unique perspective on Blair students as a longtime Blair housemaster and member of the student life office.
“Erin is the one with the health expertise who always makes sure we have a lesson plan and a learning objective before we get too far down one path,” said Mrs. Ryerson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geology, art and art history from Amherst in 2011. “I am more free flowing and jump in if the kids want to go in a different direction. But we both feed off the kids’ energy and have gotten into a good groove of working together and dividing and conquering.”
As someone whose career has always focused on teenagers and required connecting well with them in the classroom, Mrs. Fortunato has enjoyed the opportunity to work with students who she knows well on a regular basis. “In previous positions, I would drop into a school and do a program for eight weeks and then drop out to go to the next school,” she said. “It is exciting to see how much students evolve and how their perspectives change as time passes.”
She is also really impressed with how hardworking, smart and courageous Blair peer educators are. “The work they are doing requires them to be very brave,” said Mrs. Fortunato. “It is not easy to get up in front of kids you know well and command their attention, especially if kids are relaxed in their dorms. We are proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
And students are grateful for Mrs. Fortunato and Mrs. Ryerson’s support. “Both are knowledgeable about health-related information and are experienced in presenting this material to students,” Abby said. “While student members are taking the lead in organizing and executing Be Well @ Blair's endeavors, Mrs. Fortunato and Mrs. Ryerson are constantly available to offer feedback and advice, improving the overall quality of our work.”
Where Strategic Priorities Meets Daily Campus Life
The fact that Be Well @ Blair is happening in conjunction with Blair’s overarching Strategic Plan, while also being driven by students themselves gives the group an especially organic feel that underscores how closely the School’s strategic pillars align with what is happening in students’ daily lives on campus.
“Our goals are very high-level in that we want students to be interested in and aware of how important health and wellness is,” said Mrs. Ryerson. “But, at the same time, we are teaching them about the hurdles of starting something from scratch. And that the time and effort you put into something is equally proportionate to what you get out of it.”
Group members have also learned how much environment, tone and preparedness can impact the work they are doing. Since deciding to meet in the dining hall, the vibe of gatherings has become much more focused and productive. Students leading seminars quickly learned it was easier to connect with smaller groups of peers, especially when the ratio of educators to peers was at its highest. And taking a soft or forceful manner in communicating what you want to say has an impact on how listeners receive those messages.
A Future of Growth
Looking ahead, Mrs. Fortunato hopes that the group will remain the same size but plan more seminars in different formats, get creative about engaging more students and offer input about how to best reach students through Blair’s regular curriculum. Even just six months into the school year, the group’s advisors are happy to see members speaking more forcefully, feeling more empowered and knowledgeable about data, and confident about the messages they are delivering to peers across campus.
In the next year, Mrs. Fortunato and Mrs. Ryerson will encourage juniors who were involved this year to help carry forward the group’s work, ideally eventually planning at least one weekly Be Well @ Blair activity and bringing their seminars to every dorm on campus. “Right now, our students are setting a foundation,” Mrs. Fortunato said. “They’ve gone in and created something from nothing and, next year, we’ll be able to build on that and do much more.”
As spring comes to a close and students prepare for exams and graduation, they will also take a look at what worked well in the group’s first year and what tweaks must be made going into the new school year ensure their programming is most impactful in 2020-2021.