Program Designed by UTHSC Medical Students Instructs Area High School Students about Sexually Transmitted Infections

S2S yearbook photo (2)
Some of the more than 80 Student-2-Student Memphis members. The medical students volunteer to teach Shelby County high school students about sexually transmitted infections.

Student-2-Student Memphis Aims to Reduce Infection Rates Among Area Youth

Medical students from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) are going back to high school to help make Shelby County teens healthier.

Eighty-five first- through fourth-year medical students are participating in the Student-2-Student Memphis Program developed at UTHSC. The program designed by UTHSC medical students takes information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to high school classrooms in the Shelby County Schools system, offers the teens an opportunity to ask questions and develop communication strategies to navigate difficult situations involving reproductive health, and distributes information about community resources for testing and treatment. A major goal is to help reduce the rate of STIs among teens in Memphis and Shelby County.

“People are really fired up about this program,” said Liz Anderson, a second-year medical student and president of Student-2-Student Memphis. “Education is so important in trying to prevent disease.”

Liz Anderson is president of Student-2-Student Memphis at UTHSC.
Liz Anderson is president of Student-2-Student Memphis at UTHSC.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 19 million new cases of STIs each year in the United States. Of those, nearly half occur in people ages 15-24.

“Knowledge is power,” Anderson said. “We hope on a county level, we are going to help bring down rates.”

Since September, the medical students, all volunteers, have been to nine schools and taught the one-time, 50-minute sessions in 24 classrooms. Two specially trained medical students teach each class, and boys and girls are separated during the sessions.

“We believe we are in a unique position because we’re students ourselves,” Anderson said. “Since we’re closer to their age, they feel it’s a safe space to talk to us. At the same time, we’re medical students, so we can speak with authority on this and we have access to experts in the field.”

Medical student Polina Zmijewski came up with the idea for the program. Anderson took it through the process of getting approval from the Shelby County Schools board. It took six meetings with the board, including a presentation to a focus group of teachers, to make sure the program fits local needs and follows state law. Roger Young, MD, PhD, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UTHSC, is the advisor.

“Student-2-Student Memphis is only a year old, yet the medical students have made remarkable progress in bringing reproductive health education to our youth,” said Dr. Young. “The major challenge was customizing the presentation to have a very high medical content that is understandable and meaningful to high school students and within the guidelines of the Tennessee public school curriculum. We look forward to continued participation from new classes of medical students, and in this unique way, to greatly increasing the health knowledge of young adults throughout Shelby County.”

The program “has truly benefited” the high school students, said Dr. Cassandra R. Turner, health, physical education and lifetime wellness advisor for the school system. “They’ve felt comfortable talking about delicate subjects with someone who appears to be closer to their age,” she said. “The information given out was reviewed and vetted prior to the classes being started. There were small classes so the students didn’t feel threatened to talk or to ask questions, and I think the medical students were very patient with them.”

Anderson, a graduate of St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis and Princeton University, said it is easy to convince medical students to volunteer as instructors because they see the opportunity to be part of change in Shelby County and to possibly inspire the teens they talk with to choose careers in health care.

“It is important for medical students to be involved in public health initiatives,” she said.