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U.Va. Student Advocate For Public Health

May 6, 2004 -- Alyssa Lederer, who will be graduating from the University of Virginia May 16, has spent most of her undergraduate life talking to fellow students about health. A peer health educator for three years, her role in these discussions is generally that of the talker. But for a year-long project investigating sexual health and wellness in sororities on Grounds, Lederer was happy to listen.

“The research breaks a lot of stereotypes,” said Lederer of the conclusions of her senior thesis. “U.Va. sorority women practice very healthy behavior, especially in terms of [providing] a supportive environment. Being in a community of women is excellent for gynecological health.”

Moreover, said Lederer, the participants were enthusiastic about the project. She recalled her surprise when a woman who had responded to her survey anonymously approached Lederer to thank her.

“People are really seeking some type of forum to talk about these issues. … I think that providing that has been very beneficial to them,” she said.

Lederer is comfortable providing a forum for virtually any health-related topic. As a peer health educator, she has fashioned informational events dealing with alcohol abuse, eating disorders, stress management and sexual health. She served as the outreach coordinator for the Office of Health Promotion and also as the student intern for the social norms marketing project, coordinated by Jennifer Bauerle. She said that her experience in working with so many different interest groups on Grounds spurred her to create the Health Unity Council to help coordinate health awareness events, and that working with students allowed her to be “sort of the glue” for the social norms marketing effort which informs U.Va.’s strategy to reduce excessive and binge drinking.

“She’s our own personal whirlwind,” said Bauerle, who is also Lederer’s thesis adviser. “She has been phenomenal in our office.”

Lederer’s path to public health advocacy began as a senior in high school, when she joined the local AIDS organization in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her interest in HIV/AIDS awareness continued at U.Va., where she became director of the “Promoting [HIV] Negativity” organization and developed a taste for activism.

“It’s one thing to either educate or receive education,” she said. “The next step is to start the advocacy approach — not only do you need to have this knowledge, but you need to do something with it. You need to challenge other people; you need to mobilize for change.”

After a summer internship at a Washington-based organization called Youth First in 2002, Lederer became a vocal advocate of comprehensive sex education for young people. She said that opposition to a frank discussion of contraception, sexual pressure from partners and safe sex is harmful and dependent on “scare tactics.”

“Comprehensive sex education is about options and embracing everyone,” she said.

She suggested that American society is in denial about the sexual exposure it offers young children: “[Sex] is all over the media, pop culture, the lingo. It’s all around young people, but we’re not willing to talk about the way it affects us personally.” She said that even elementary school age kids are ready to discuss sex in a direct manner, even if it meant “not going into detail.”

While student health work dominates her active agenda, Lederer also pursues an ambitious academic regime. She has developed her own double-major, combining interdisciplinary Studies in Health and Society with a major in Studies in Women and Gender. She also completed a minor in Jewish Studies.

“My courses have given me an opportunity to really explore these issues, turn them into academic interests, and even into professional goals.”

Eventually, Lederer hopes to enroll in New York University’s program in nonprofit management and public policy, but first she wants to apply her credentials in the workforce. With just a week left in her undergraduate career, Lederer said she was looking forward to a quick breather, before accepting a position with one of the many organizations interested in her talents.

“One day she will probably run one of the most incredible nonprofit organizations in the country – whether it’s HIV or women’s issues.” predicted Bauerle. “She’s going to be someone to watch and someone who’s going to knock our socks off.”

Contact: Kathleen Valenzi, (434) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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