CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University Student Health Services is launching a new program called “OSU Choices” to reduce high-risk drinking among students, using student athletes as peer educators and communicators.
The project, which will span three years, is funded by a $30,000 NCAA Choices grant. It aims to reduce the number of students who engage in high-risk drinking (five or more alcoholic drinks at one sitting) via peer-led education.
Rather than being an abstinence-based program, OSU Choices will focus on harm reduction – teaching students how to reduce their risks if they choose to drink – by providing strategies to encourage safe choices, and highlighting social norms around drinking. The program will also focus on providing socially-engaging educational events.
“Student athletes are well positioned to be leaders on OSU’s campus,” said Sara Caldwell-Kan with Student Health Services, who helped write the grant proposal. “Being well-known and credible members of the OSU community, they have the ability to spread positive messages regarding student behavior and health.”
Rob Reff, director of the Alcohol, Drug and Violence Prevention Center at SHS, said studies show that when educational messages come from someone students identify as being in their group, the message resonates more strongly. Choosing student athletes as peer educators makes it easier to spread those messages to other athletes, Reff said.
Additionally, student athletes are also team-oriented and leadership-driven and typically have a shared set of values that make them good choices to speak to the broader student community. Because much of the messaging will take place in student recreation buildings, having student athletes represented also makes sense.
The staff at SHS is excited to partner with OSU’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics for the project, which is the first time the two groups have worked together on an alcohol education campaign.
“Student athletes and the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics play a critical role in creating the environment at OSU,” said John Ruyak, another faculty member at Student Health Services and a contributor to the grant proposal. “This partnership signifies their commitment to ensuring that our community has the tools it needs to remain safe and healthy.”
Kimya Massey is senior associate athletic director for student-athlete development at Oregon State. He said athletics is excited to work with Student Health Services on the project.
“It gives student athletes the opportunity to demonstrate leadership both within athletics, but also on a wider scale on campus,” Massey said. “Because student athletes often have a very respected voice, this is a win-win situation for all parties involved.”
Massey said athletes are a good choice for the project.
“They're a great fit because of their ability to understand the impact of making healthy choices and decisions and being able to think within a team mindset and holistically,” he said. “I think it's very positive to combine those attributes with our campus partners to create a strong partnership that will strengthen the education and awareness campus-wide.”
The goals of the Choices program are to increase the number of OSU students who have the knowledge and resources to make positive and safe decisions around alcohol, to decrease the prevalence of negative behaviors including high-risk and underage drinking, and to provide students with better information about alcohol use on campus.
That last piece, providing accurate social norms, is a key part of the project, and is the focus of marketing and messaging by student athletes. Social norming is the practice of clarifying the beliefs among a population regarding the behavior of their peers. In the case of the OSU campaign, students will be made aware that a majority of students do not engage in high-risk drinking.
Athletes will have multiple roles in the program, first by participating in an “up2u” alcohol harm-reduction workshop. By 2019, 90 percent of new student athletes will have participated in the workshop.
Selected athletes will be trained to lead “up2u” workshops for non-athlete populations. Finally, selected athletes will help review and improve the campaign for the OSU Choices program, and athletes also will be chosen to serve as the face for the social norming campaign aimed at those who utilize recreation sports facilities on campus.
In the past, staff members from the Alcohol, Drug and Violence Prevention Center have been primarily responsible for delivering alcohol harm-reduction programs on campus. The OSU Choices approach shifts some of that work to peers.
“Partnering with student athletes in this work is new and will bring new energy to creating a community defined by positive health behaviors related to alcohol consumption,” Ruyak said.