Adrian Kulesza, Staff Photographer

With seats spaced six feet apart, abounding Zoom fatigue and a raging pandemic, life may look a little different this semester. A group of 28 students, two assigned to each residential college, is working to support their fellow students’ physical and emotional well-being during these unprecedented times.

Shortly before the start of the fall semester, the Yale College Dean’s Office launched the Public Health Education for Peers program, selecting over two dozen undergraduates to serve as peer health educators, or PHEPs. The PHEPs’ role is to guide students in making safe and healthy choices as they grapple with the new challenges of life during a pandemic.

“[PHEPs are] focused on public health guidelines and safety, but from [a] student perspective through education,” student affairs fellow and PHEP supervisor Katrina Garry told the News. “They offer support and resources to students, and do so in the communities they are already involved with.”

Collectively, the PHEPs are a diverse group spread across a dozen majors, five varsity sports and many student organizations. What unites them is a shared interest in advocating for public health and supporting their fellow students.

Andrew Jackson III ’22, a PHEP for Branford College, wants students to see PHEPs as approachable and accessible. He stresses that unlike Yale’s public health coordinators — the graduate and professional students tasked with both educating students on new health guidelines and intervening in unsafe situations — PHEPs are not responsible for enforcing the community compact. PHEPs instead work completely in a support-based capacity.

“We want to be seen as a resource that people feel comfortable talking to about adapting to life in a pandemic while at Yale,” Jackson wrote in an email to the News. “Think of our work as similar to that of Communication and Consent Educators, but in the field of public health.”

One way PHEPs support their fellow students is by hosting their own weekly “PHEP Talks” — office hour sessions where students can ask PHEPs for clarification about the community compact or advice concerning social gatherings and events.

PHEPs also maintain a website through YaleConnect, where students can find links to talks, how-to guides and government resources, as well as an Instagram page filled with infographics that help students make everyday actions — like washing a reusable mask or sending a care package — as hygienic as possible.

“I don’t want people to see us as enforcers,” Gabe Hohensee ’22, a PHEP for Silliman College, told the News. “We’re here to be a springboard for ideas, a point of contact that is non-threatening and relatable.”

While PHEPs may all share the same job description, they tackle different initiatives based on their assigned residential colleges and project teams.

Each residential college has a pair of PHEPs who help advise the college and plan unique social events for each college. In Timothy Dwight College, for instance, PHEPs Anissa Abboud ’21 and Anna Tran ’22 hosted an ice cream social to chat with students. Meanwhile, in Branford College, PHEPs Vanessa Zhang ’21 and Jackson advised their residential college council on how to make outdoor movie nights safe and socially distant.

Each PHEP also serves on one of four project teams: the social life team, the COVID-19 policies and resources team, the social media team or the communications team. Each team is responsible for a specific set of tasks. The social life team, for instance, helps students and organizations create safe get-togethers. The COVID-19 policies and resources team works to compile new data, updates and announcements from the CDC, state and local government and the University. From there, the information is disseminated by the social media team — which manages the Instagram account — and the communications team, which creates graphics for various Yale newsletters and informational documents.

Beyond helping students safeguard their physical health, PHEPs also strive to support students’ emotional well-being and address the toll that a virtual semester of Zoom classes and social distancing can take on students’ mental health.

As part of the weeklong training they received, PHEPs met with representatives of Yale Mental Health and Counseling and the Good Life Center to learn about the different mental health resources Yale offers.

“We’re not psychotherapists,” Hohensee said. “But we can help plug students into resources if need be. We want students to be not only safe and healthy but well.”

While the PHEP program was created in light of the pandemic, there’s a possibility that it may evolve to become a permanent resource to “support students around other public health concerns,” Garry said.

According to Garry, over 100 students utilize PHEP resources each week.

Alice Ao |