To most, the Valentine’s Day season is a chance to explore a fledgling romance or celebrate an old one. But to RAs, charged with helping their peers navigate college life, it is an opportunity to educate their communities about healthy relationships and consent.
Nabet and Berry spent Wednesday night knocking on doors on their floor in Cumberland Hall, a dorm that is home to close to 500 students. Many of their residents, mostly first-year students, were grateful for the advice — and free condoms, Berry said.
“As an RA, it’s really important to create conversations around multiple different topics,” said Nabet, who recently started her second semester as an RA. “Sexual health is something that’s super important to know about when you’re on a college campus.”
For some students, college is the first time they will receive formal sex education, said Samantha Cyrulnik-Dercher, federal policy director at SIECUS, a nonprofit that advocates comprehensive sex education. Health advocates say students should be encouraged to speak openly about sex and relationships, especially at a time when 1 in 4 college-aged women have experienced nonconsensual sexual contact and people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for half of all newly reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The university’s housing department this month required RAs to post bulletin boards plastered with information about fostering healthy relationships. Because dorms are the entry point for about 4,000 freshmen, students and staff who work there are responsible for spreading information students may have missed in high school.
“We provide our community staff with critical messaging that we feel is really important to push out to our residents,” said Tracy Kiras, spokeswoman for U-Md.’s Department of Resident Life. “Every RA is provided with a stock bulletin board centered around the critical message theme.”
RAs promote different messages to dorm residents throughout the year, from mental health to academic success. In April, RAs will decorate bulletin boards with information about sustainability to celebrate Earth Day on April 22, Kiras said.
Emily Berry, Megan’s sister, is also an RA and is using the Valentine’s Day season to promote safe sex. A sex-ed trivia night is on the calendar. She will also pair some of her residents together and deliver baby dolls to their doors — reminiscent of a high school sex-ed class in which teenagers learn about parenting by nurturing a chicken egg.
“Maybe they don’t understand what consent actually is or just how to have sex safely,” Emily Berry said about the students who live on her floor. “RAs are very comfortable with talking about hard subjects or awkward subjects.”
Cyrulnik-Dercher called this kind of peer-to-peer education “extremely effective.”
“We can’t pretend that 18-year-olds show up to college with no understanding or with no experiences that are relevant to this,” Cyrulnik-Dercher said. “But what young people are learning in too many classrooms across the country today is shame and stigma. That sexuality itself is shameful and that sex itself is a stigma.”
Devante Jones, a junior and RA, said he feels prepared to have the sex talk with his residents, no matter how embarrassing it might be for his peers.
“I’ve always been a social person, so I’ve never strayed away from conversations like that,” Jones said. “I like to take a lighthearted approach.”
Jones designed a bulletin board that encourages safe sex, telling students that free screenings on campus for sexually transmitted infections will be the “easiest test you’ll take in college.”
“Everyone here is college-aged, and sexual activity is something bound to happen,” Jones said. “I would rather my residents be educated than go about it in dangerous ways.”