What is Peer Engagement?
There are a number of ways that campuses engage students in their alcohol prevention efforts. Most often, campus prevention staff work with students who serve as “peer educators,” volunteering their time to raise awareness among their fellow students about the dangers of alcohol use. In these more traditional roles, peer educators may organize and run alcohol awareness week activities or present information on alcohol through workshops or theater groups. While these activities fulfill students who want to support campus alcohol prevention and while research has demonstrated some benefits of peer educators, anecdotally we know that many campus prevention professionals look to engage students in other activities more likely to change the alcohol culture on their campus.
Less commonly, students have supported alcohol prevention staff by serving as counselors or mentors or by facilitating brief motivational interventions. They may also help to plan and organize alcohol-free events on campus. Students have contributed to the prevention office in other ways, contributing their time and efforts towards data collection, creating and supporting social norms marketing campaigns, serving as student representatives in coalitions, or supporting the media outreach of the office. It is this expanded notion of involving students in supporting the work of the alcohol prevention office that we mean when we use the term “peer engagement.”
Among the many benefits of involving peers in prevention activities is the cost-savings that the prevention office may witness as a result of their contributions. An institution might enlist a design major to design images used in a social norms marketing campaign instead of hiring a graphic designer, bring in a communications major to plan and implement their social marketing efforts, or recruit students to run a Safe Rides program instead of hiring drivers.
For example, at the College of the Holy Cross, peer educators are responsible for running the college’s 21st birthday card campaign, saving administrators’ time. Peer educators tend to be compensated minimally or may receive course credit for their work. The director of Harvard University’s AOD office, Ryan Travia, estimates that students in his Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (or DAPAs) program contribute through their efforts the equivalent of two FTEs annually, developing Harvard’s social norms marketing campaign, delivering workshops during orientation, and a host of other activities.
It is common for peer educators to undergo extensive training, specifically for conducting brief interventions, counseling, or educational sessions. Some institutions have well-developed and selective programs designed to engage students in alcohol prevention efforts. For example, Villanova University’s peer education program called POWER trains volunteer students through a non-credit course over 10-12 weeks on a number of health-related topics and activities. POWER has a full-time peer education coordinator who teaches the course and also facilitates the programs and ongoing training. Additionally, Villanova involves students beyond those strictly interested in alcohol education through six non-paid but academic credit-earning internships in which students support the office’s public relations, website, and event planning. The office usually receives four to five times the number of applicants for the internships, demonstrating its perceived value among students. In exchange, the office receives increased visibility through the involvement of students who wouldn’t typically become involved in alcohol prevention.
There has been extensive research documenting the positive role of peer educators on student alcohol-related behaviors and attitudes. For example, one longitudinal study compared the differences in health outcomes between students who did and did not come into contact with peer health educators (PHEs) over a three-year period. Although all students had an increase in consumption during the first year of the analysis, consumption rates leveled off during the second and third years for students who had contact with PHEs, yet continued to rise for students who did not come into contact with PHEs. A similar trend was found for the alcohol-related negative consequences experienced by students (White et al., 2009).
Peer-led alcohol interventions have been demonstrated to influence the normative perceptions of alcohol consumption among students. For example, at Washington State University, students enrolled in a Self Management Skills (SMS) class with the addition of a Peer Norms Correction (PNC) procedure demonstrated greater reductions in normative perceptions of peer consumption than students enrolled in the SMS class without the PNC component (Peeler et al., 2001).
Peer-led educational sessions have yielded increases in student knowledge around alcohol. At California State University, Sacramento, students who participated in a peer-run Don’t Cancel That Class session with an “Alcohol Jeopardy” activity demonstrated increases in alcohol-related knowledge (DeJong, 2008).
Employing peers to administer brief interventions has been demonstrated to have an impact on drinking outcomes comparable to professional-led brief interventions. For example, in a comparison of a peer-led Lifestyle Management Class (LMC) and a professional-led LMC, no significant differences were found between the two interventions in terms of drinking outcomes (Fromme & Corbin, 2004), and both interventions yielded decreases in the frequency of drunk driving and experienced negative consequences. Similarly, another study found that fraternity members who received brief interventions from peers reported significantly greater reductions in typical blood alcohol concentration levels (BACs) than did fraternity members who received brief interventions from professional staff (Larimer et al., 2001). Both of these studies lend support to the idea that peers may be just as effective as professionals at leading brief interventions, and may offer a cost-savings approach to prevention.
Finally, peer educators may play a role in assisting student alcohol policy violators with modifying their behaviors. At a West Texas A&M University, after the launch of a peer-led educational session for youth offenders, the university had a dramatic decrease in repeat offenses (“West Texas A&M University,” n.d.).
Issues and considerations
Clearly, students have a role to play in alcohol prevention efforts on campus. Whether they lend credibility by providing important insight into what a “cool” alcohol-free activity might be, reach out to fellow students regarding alcohol and expand the visibility of the AOD office, or lend their support through administrative tasks, students are invaluable in what they bring to a campus alcohol prevention effort. Given all of the many benefits of involving students, one thing is also clear: it is important to train and supervise students properly in their roles. For example, students must be adequately trained and given a protocol to follow when leading Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) or other forms of brief motivational interventions. Even having students perform in theatre groups to educate and engage their peers on alcohol topics requires that they adhere strictly to protocol and not diverge from their script. When considering the many advantages of having peers engaged in alcohol prevention, it is also important incorporate the important tasks of training and supervision into an AOD administrator’s plans.
DeJong, W. (Spring 2008). Mutual Interests Involving Faculty in Campus Prevention Work. The U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. Catalyst (Spring 2008) Vol. 10 No. 1.
Fromme, K. & Corbin, W.R. (2004). Prevention of heavy drinking and associated negative consequences among mandated and voluntary college students. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 1038-1049.
Larimer, M. E., Turner, A. P., Anderson, B. K., Fader, J. S., Kilmer, J. R., Palmer, R. S., et al. (2001). Evaluating a brief alcohol intervention with fraternities. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 62, 370−380.
Peeler, C., Far, J., Miller, J., & Brigham, T. (2001). An analysis of the effects of a program to reduce heavy drinking among college students. Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education, 45(2), 39-54.
West Texas A&M University: Community Service by Youth Alcohol Offenders. The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.
White, S., Park, Y., Israel, T., & Cordero, E. (2009, March). Longitudinal Evaluation of Peer Health Education on a College Campus: Impact on Health Behaviors. Journal of American College Health, 57(5), 497-506.