Prevention Profiles: Take Five - September Johnson (Student at Boston University School of Public Health)


September Johnson

Audio file

Boston University School of Public Health graduate student September Johnson is our guest this episode. During the podcast, September talks about why it's important to involve students in campus prevention efforts, the best ways staff can engage students, and much more.
Rich Lucey: Hi, this is Rich Lucey in the Drug Enforcement Administration's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.
Welcome to this episode of our podcast series "Prevention Profiles: Take Five."
This is a first for us today on our episode.
We're excited to have September Johnson who is our first student podcast guest in the series.
So before I introduce you to September directly, let me tell you a little bit about her.
September Johnson is a master's in public health candidate at the Boston University School of Public Health.
She also currently serves as an intern in DEA's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.
September earned her bachelor's degree in public health from the University at Albany.
She has a background in project management and has over three years of experience as a public health professional in a variety of fields and settings.
At the University at Albany, September was a peer educator with the nationally recognized Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program and helped develop the university's collegiate recovery program.
September also has served as alcohol and other drug graduate assistant at Wellesley College.
She hopes to continue her career in substance use prevention following graduation.
And with that, September, welcome to the podcast.
September Johnson: Thanks, Rich.
Thanks for having me.

Lucey: Yeah, we're really excited to have you here.
September and I go back a few years.
She was an intern of mine in my former role at the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention in the Office of the Director, and I certainly got to know September then.
And then the opportunity presented itself this past semester for September to intern with us here as part of her practicum in her graduate studies.
So we're really excited to have September with us, and in fact I'll talk a little bit about some of the work she's done in one of our questions later on.
So September, if you're ready we'll just jump right into the first of our five questions.
Johnson: Great.

Lucey: So many of my questions are going to be really focused on your perspectives as a student, both undergrad and grad.
I know you've had some professional experience as well, but the bulk of your time in this field has been as a student.
So what do you see as some of the biggest challenges that college campuses are currently facing around drug use among their students?
Johnson: Definitely.
So I see three big challenges.
One, the first one being change.
Campuses are always changing.
Students graduate each year and new students are replacing them.
And each [inaudible 2:44] students brings along different ideas, different opinions, different trends.
And so the way we go about prevention efforts have to kind of change with it as we get new students along the way, making sure that we are targeting and implementing prevention programs to meet the needs of the new students that we are getting on campuses each year.
Also student trends change, and they change fast.
Memes, popular YouTube videos, top music artists and songs, internet challenges like the cinnamon challenge.
They're all really great ways to relate with students, but you have to make sure you're kind of staying on top of those trends and following them because they change fast.
And so how you relate with your students using those trends, you need to stay up to date with them because they are changing so fast.
Another one would be, another challenge is always time.
Prevention takes time and there's just always so much work to be done.
Grant proposals take up a lot of time.
Waiting to share the results of the grant proposals takes a lot of time.
Collecting data, analyzing that data so it can be used in your prevention efforts takes time.
But one thing that we really want to make sure that we're doing in prevention work is engaging with your students and working with your students and taking the time to really effectively train your students.
And working with students through your prevention process is going to be key to the success in your prevention work.
Time is definitely something you'll never have enough of.
I know campus staff are incredibly busy, and students are incredibly busy as well trying to balance class work, homework, finding internships and jobs, engaging in club sports or just clubs in general.
But we really need to make sure that we're carving out that time to have face to face time working with students.
It'll really help to make sure that student voices are being heard and that students are being trained with the best information that's available.
And the last challenge that comes to mind is definitely a hard one, and it's having those hard conversations around drug use with your students, especially around marijuana.
These conversations are hard.
I totally recognize that and realize it.
They bring up strong emotions and opinions, and they can get political.
And there's also a lot of misinformation out there regarding drug use.
For example, we know that marijuana's not approved to treat anxiety or insomnia and that there are studies that show that using marijuana can actually make these conditions worse.
But there are a lot of students that believe that marijuana really helps them with their anxiety and their insomnia.
And so we really need to engage with students around these discussions and have these conversations so that students know what the science is saying and what the research is saying.
And having these hard conversations with your students will really help to open the door of communication and let them know that you're someone that they can talk to about this in a nonjudgmental way.
And often in college this is the first opportunity that many students get to have these hard conversations around drug use and really think about it and how it might impact their lives.
So it's really important to have these conversations and approach them with empathy and approach them with compassion and in a non-confrontational way, excuse me, but while also stating the research and the science that's out there and letting them know of the rules and regulations that are out there on your campus.
There are going to be students that disagree with you and argue with you, but getting that information out there so that students are hearing it and knowing where they can go for more information is really important.
And there are going to be students who do absorb that information and then can use it for themselves and share it with others.

Lucey: So I really appreciate these different challenges that you came up with, and what I heard were kind of three takeaways from these challenges.
And one is because the student body changes yearly, the student trends change very quickly.
We as professionals working in this field, we need to be flexible.
We say that about prevention anyway.
Prevention's middle name is flexibility.
And learn to be adaptable.
So there's that, and obviously being current about these trends and what students are, what they're watching, what they're listening to, what they're reading and all of that.
But the one thing that really struck with me is the idea of training.
I think having been in this field for as long as I have, it is very important to have the student voice at the table.
And it's a fine line that I think we as professionals need to walk sometimes because with all due respect, the students quite honestly while their voice is important, they are not the prevention experts.
We who have been in the field for quite some time.
If you're doing your job correctly, you're staying on top of the science in prevention.
You're always staying abreast in your craft.
So we need to balance what's effective in prevention and what the science tells us works and balance that with the student ideas and the student input.
Is that something that you've witnessed or been part of both in your time at U Albany and now at BU?
Johnson: Definitely.
I think students come with a lot of really, a lot of excitement and a lot of big ideas which is really helpful to prevention work.
But we also, we also totally acknowledge the fact that we're not the professionals doing this work and that we're in school because we're learning to do this work.
We still have a long way to go in our careers before we're becoming those professionals and becoming those experts.
But engaging with students and letting them know why a program they are thinking about might not work or the science that you are using to inform your program.
Letting them know that information along the way is really valuable to the students you're working with as they're beginning their careers, especially if they're thinking about going into the prevention field.
So giving that continuous feedback to students is also really important because students totally know that they're not in the professional field yet, but they want to learn.
Lucey: And so it's always a continuous teachable moment, a learning opportunity on both sides, and that's what's great about this.
So you alluded to it in your response to the first question.
I'm going to segue into our second question and it talks a little bit about one of the projects that you were involved in here as you continue your internship with DEA.
You wrote an article for our New Student Center Section on campus,
And it focused on finding the truth online about drug information.
Why is that topic important for students?
Johnson: Definitely.
So having the knowledge to determine if the information that you're looking at is accurate, especially when it comes to drug information and health information in general, can set you up to make the best decision for yourself and for your health.
So if you're looking at something and you're not sure if it's right or not and you're making a decision based on that information, you could face worse consequences than if you knew how to find that accurate health information.
And we're so lucky to be living in the time and age of Google and it's an amazing tool that we have access to, but in addition to all of that great information that's out there, there's also misinformation out there that can get caught in there that we're looking at.
And so it's really important for students to be able to tell what is and what isn't accurate when it comes to drug information and health information.
Being able to determine what information is and what information is not accurate is a skill that we're not really taught throughout our schooling.
It's not really something that's covered throughout high school and middle school.
Unless you're really like a health-focused major in college, you're probably not getting that kind of information in your studies at college.
So it's really important to make sure that you're working with your students to keep this information in mind.
As prevention practitioners, this is something we should keep in mind as we work with our students.
So trying to host trainings and lectures about how to find accurate drug information and how to find accurate health information can be really important and something that students will really benefit from.
This is something you can train your peer educators on so that they can have that information for themselves and also disperse it to the rest of their campus and to their peers.
Have literature available for your students in waiting rooms or in other areas that students might frequent about how to find this information.
And if it's possible, include this information on your website, not only about finding accurate health information or accurate drug information but have accurate information available on your website so that students can go and if they're looking for a question about marijuana, they could just pop onto the Student Health Center website and find it there or something about stimulants or something along that.
Make it easy for students to find reliable sources that they can rely on to find this important health information.
We want students to make healthy decisions, and making sure our students are equipped with the best information possible and knowing how they, and knowing that they can find that best information possible will help us to make sure that they're making the best decisions for themselves and for their health.

Lucey: So it's really, really good advice.
And in fact the takeaway I get from that is not only for students who are listening to this episode of the podcast but also the professionals, and the mantra has to be, do your homework.
I mean and just because we're no longer maybe in school or you think you've graduated from elementary and secondary school, there's always homework to be done.
And I think the homework here is doing your own due diligence to ensure that the information that you are reading, whatever sources are your go to sources are indeed accurate.
I mean the internet gives us so many different methods of reading information, whether it's blogs, journal articles, Facebook comments.
I mean people will look to all these different sources as their go to source of information, but that doesn't mean it's real.
There's a reason.
I guess there's a joke that if I read it on the internet, it must be real, right?
 But the fact is, no, you really just need to do your homework about that.
And we really appreciated you writing that article.
And for those of you listening, if you haven't checked it out, again you can go to our website,
Go to the Student Center which is one of the two new sections we launched this past summer, and you can check out the article that September wrote specifically on finding the truth online about drug information, because obviously having accurate information is one of the first steps to effective prevention.
So we appreciate you writing that article.
We think it's a really important topic.
Johnson: Of course, I'm happy to write it.

Lucey: So third question, I'm going to, so out you a little bit in terms of kind of your experience prior at University at Albany.
So when you were interned with me and we were at CSAP, it was interesting to find out that even though you were a public health major, you didn't know much if anything about all of the different drug abuse prevention efforts that were happening at that particular campus.
Is that a fair statement?
Johnson: Oh, that's a very fair statement.

Lucey: And so, you know, my former boss and great colleague and friend of mine, Fran Harding, we said, you know what, we need to put you in touch with Dolores Cimini.
Dolores is doing great work at the University at Albany.
And once you two had that phone call, you were off like wildfire getting involved in so many different efforts on campus.
So I boil this down to the question and you alluded to it early on.
But from your experience at U Albany where you then became so immersed in seeing the benefit of student involvement, why is it important to involve students in these prevention efforts?
So students are a huge and often under-utilized resource in your campus prevention efforts.
The more you engage and work with your students the more engaged students are going to be with your prevention efforts.
So they're going to be more effective that way.
If your students can be involved in every step of the prevention planning process, in the prevention process in general from brainstorming and planning to evaluation of that prevention program, there's a lot of benefit from having that student input along the way.
Students can give you honest answers about how a decision can affect their lives, can affect their learning experiences and their campus experience in general.
They can also let you know why a program may not be working as well as you thought it would or they can let you know why it was such a success.
There's a lot of input that students can give you that you might not be able to find out because you're not a student at that university.
Also students talk with other students and believe in their peers.
Once I started working with the drug prevention efforts on our campus, my friends, I was telling my friends about all the work I was doing and they were getting excited about it.
And they were wanting to share more, and they were telling their friends.
And so it really is a ripple effect once you start working with students.
They're going to tell their students, their fellow students, and fellow students are going to tell more fellow students, and it's just going to get a much wider reach.
It's also important to involve students in your prevention efforts and making sure that they're really well trained because there are going to be events and conversations on your campus that campus staff just don't have access to, whether it's bus rides, late library study nights, walks late at night or just passing by each other in the hallway.
These are conversations between students that prevention practitioners don't have access to, but fellow students do.
So if they have the information regarding the drug prevention efforts on your campus and regarding that accurate health information, they can share it with their peers, and it's going to continue to get shared throughout the rest of the student campus.

Lucey: So what I just was thinking in that last sentiment there was how much students can be used really as ambassadors for the campus' program because as you said, the students are interacting in so many more and different ways than maybe the professional staff are, that there are opportunities to promote what's going on on the campus that the professionals may not be able to get to.
Johnson: Definitely.

Lucey: Yeah, so let me ask you a follow-up question, and while I don't need you or want you to name names or really get very specific about the campus or anything like that, but have you had, have you encountered issues where the student input was squelched or just dismissed in such a way that it devalued you and how that affected you as a student going forward?
Johnson: So I would say I have had that experience as a student, but I wouldn't say it was necessarily involving drug use prevention efforts on my campus.

Lucey: Okay.

Johnson: But I would say it's definitely, as a student who was very active on campus and was advocating for multiple things on campus from making sure student confidentiality was protected to preventing an on-campus bar from being put in place, I was talking with the provost and the VP for student affairs a lot my junior and senior year of college.
And they were always very welcoming to students' input and everything.
So when it came to that not being the same way, it was definitely hard.
But students get really good at advocacy work.
And students really want to work together to have a campus that feels like home to them and feels like a place that is safe for them so students are going to get together and really try to make that happen.
So when I was experiencing that as a student, the ones that I was advocating with, we regrouped and we made another plan, and we eventually did get our voice heard and was able to make sure that our concerns were listened to through the higher, through the higher administration at our school.
So students are persistent, and they want their voices to be heard.
They will make sure that their voices are heard.

Lucey: So I think that it's true, and this is not a monopoly that students have.
I think that it's true even as adults as we move into the professional ranks and such.
I think we all like to have our voices heard.
We all like to have at least our input considered.
I know I have felt that way.
It's like I don't need to have my input always incorporated or always adopted, but just being given the opportunity to express my point of view I think is even perhaps more important than not accepting it.
I think it's at least having that opportunity.
And I would hope that students would feel the value in that.

Johnson: Definitely.
I think making sure that you have the opportunity to be heard is so important, and having the opportunity to work with the administration at your school to really hear those concerns and really feel like you're being heard is really important throughout learning how to do prevention work and learning how to do advocacy work as a student.

Lucey: Absolutely.
So I'll move onto our fourth question and this can pertain to your work as an undergrad student or even now as a grad student.
How can staff on college campuses from your point of view best engage with students?
Johnson: Definitely.
So students are going to be again one of your most important stakeholders throughout your prevention work so be sure you're engaging with them.
In addition to working with peer educators or student ambassadors, whatever students you may be working with on a normal basis, make sure you're engaging outside of just like your usual prevention programming or outside of substance use and infractions.
You want to learn what your students are interested in.
You want to follow our trends.
Go to campus events to see what's going on on campus outside of just the day to day prevention work that you may be doing.
If your school doesn't require student organizations to have an advisor, maybe check in with your peer education groups to see how you can support them.
See if you can send them updated research.
Offer supplies for events if possible or offer to host trainings on drug use or finding accurate health information or other things that your peer educators may be interested in.
 There's going to be; because students are finding each other to be credible sources, you really want to make sure that you're engaging with your peer educators and those students on your campus that are doing peer to peer work to make sure that they're well trained and have all of the information they need to provide accurate information to the rest of campus.
And encourage the voice of the students that you are working with that they have a good idea.
Help them implement it.
Ask for their opinions throughout your work.
Reach out to them if you see an opportunity that might work out well for them or it's a good fit for them.
Be in contact with the students that you're working with.
Your students, some of them are going to be the next generation of prevention practitioners.
And as a student we want mentors.
We want to learn the tricks of the trade.
I'm so incredibly grateful for my mentors and my supervisors that I've had so far throughout my undergraduate and graduate school experience.
Prevention was not the field that I originally thought I was going to go into.

Lucey: It never is.
Don't worry.

Johnson: It was not what I thought I would be doing, but I'm so happy that I'm here and that I'm doing this work, and it was because of my mentors and because of my supervisors that I felt really comfortable to really dive head first into this field.
And again not all of our ideas along the way are going to be winners in the prevention field.
We're still learning.
We're still learning the tricks of the trade.
But don't judge us for our youth.
We want to learn.
We want to hear from you and figure out what would work best in that scenario because we want to learn from your knowledge and your experiences.
We want to be pushed to work on our strengths and see what working in the prevention field is really like.
So make sure you're engaging with your students because your students do want to engage with you too.

Lucey: So a quick follow-up on this, and if this were an evaluation project it would be terrible because I don't have a control in place.
But do you see a difference in how you are either engaging yourself or being engaged as an undergrad versus now as a grad student?
 Do you see a difference in that, in how you're being asked to be engaged in work?
 Or is it mainly what you make of it?
 Sometimes you have to be the proactive one and get yourself involved.

Johnson: I think in my experience it's kind of getting yourself involved.
And like as we spoke about, I was really lucky to get involved with Dr. Cimini, and she really took me under her wing and I'm so grateful for that.
And I got a lot of really great experience at U Albany in the prevention field, and that led to one thing which led to another which led to another great opportunity.
So I think it can be both.
Making sure that you're going after, going after opportunities that present themselves to you and making your voice heard, but also seeing what's out there and applying to prevention internships and reaching out to professionals and researchers on your campus to see how you can get involved in those prevention efforts.
It can go both ways.

Lucey: Well, I think I would go so far as to say that you were fortunate in your undergrad work to have a foundation laid that really helped you in your graduate work and be able to carry that forward.
In fact it presented itself to you perhaps a whole new profession.
Johnson: A hundred percent.
Again to not think I was going into prevention work, so happy I'm here.
And I think also most people don't go into it.
I think I'm in a minority where I went into college knowing I wanted to be a public health major and kind of stuck with it.
I didn't change my major a bunch of times.
I knew I wanted to be in the public health field.
I just didn't know what area of public health I really wanted to focus on.
And luckily has such a great public health community that I was really able to check out what public health had to offer and find that prevention was the section of public health that was for me.

Lucey: Great.
So as we wrap up I'm going to move onto our fifth and final question which is a little bit of a spin on a typical question I ask our guests on the podcast.
And so for current or prospective students who are listening to this episode, what advice do you have for them on getting involved in efforts to prevent drug abuse on their campus?
Johnson: Well, a campus is your, is the perfect place to jumpstart a career in prevention.
If you have a peer education group on your campus, you should definitely get involved.
Peer education is so much fun.
I loved the peer education groups I was a part of during my undergrad experience.
I learned so much through how each, from each of the groups I was a part of, and I gained such great friends from being in those groups so it's really worth joining your peer education group on campus.
And if you really want to get more involved, make sure that you're reaching out to those doing the prevention work on your campus, whether it's the counseling center, the health center.
Maybe you have a prevention office that's on your campus.
Reach out to them.
Staff do want to work with you as much as you want to work with the staff so make sure you're reaching out, and also making sure that you're staying up to date on the science, on the research that's out there.
That's important too.
And it's okay if you feel like you don't know what you're doing at this point in the game.
You're learning how the prevention field works and that takes time.
So don't let imposter syndrome stand in your way.
That's definitely easier said than done, but just remember that your voice is important and that your thoughts and opinions and your experiences as a student are critical to success of prevention work.
And your voices are to be heard and it will provide great, great value to the work that's being done on campus.
And remember to have fun.

Lucey: Yeah, well, that's important I think no matter what you get involved in.
But I'm glad you ended on that because throughout this entire episode you've given just really good advice.
And I think it's not just for students the advice that you gave.
I would hope that the professionals who are listening in on the podcast also have some nuggets that they can take away on how they're engaging or not with students and the value of engaging with students.
And so I know that it's been a pleasure of mine working with you over the years as an intern.
Both in my previous agency and now here, you've contributed a lot in those roles.
And I would expect you to continue to go on and do great things.
So September, thank you again so much for being part of the podcast, and I think that you've set the bar for us and for others to follow as we hope to get more students involved and perhaps as guests on the podcast to hear about their experiences as we continue to do this work, the really challenging but rewarding work of preventing drug abuse on campuses.
So again, September, thank you so much.

Johnson: Thank you so much.
It was great to be here and great to work with you.

Lucey: Thank you.
And for those of you who are listening, we do appreciate you taking the time to listen to this episode of "Prevention Profiles: Take Five."
And with that I will say thanks for listening and have a great day.