Oct. 01 2018

Health Coaches Help Point the Way to College

A program that helps New York City high school students from low-income communities achieve their potential achieved an important milestone this year. In the first cohort of BridgeUP students, 35 out of 35 were accepted into college, including one who is now a freshman at Columbia College. By comparison, fewer than six in ten high school students citywide go on to college, with a lower fraction in disadvantaged areas.

BridgeUP goes well beyond academic help to offer students broad psychosocial and health support through BeWell Health and Wellness, a program directed by the Columbia Mailman School’s Renee and Alwyn Cohall who collectively have more than 25 years of experience working with adolescents in vulnerable communities. Both programs are funded through the Helen Gurley Brown Revocable Trust. At the heart of BeWell are its Health Coaches—master’s students from the Columbia Mailman School and the Columbia School of Social Work.

At four branches of the New York Public Library, these Health Coaches help groups of high school students learn more about health promotion while improving their coping skills. They also facilitate access to clinical care and counseling when needed.

At one BridgeUP site, hosted in the New York Public library branch on East 96th Street, MPH student Julia Herskovic works with her students, both in small groups and individually, on issues from exercise and nutrition to stress reduction. As part of her summer practicum, she extended these lessons by developing a smart phone app that gives them resources like healthy recipes, fitness tips, and positive affirmations. Herskovic says her coaching style involves a healthy dose of listening. “I got to know these young people and learned what their needs were,” she says. “Over the last year, I’ve seen them mature to a point where they are really thinking critically about their health decisions and about their futures.”

Natalie Baez, a senior at Aquinas High School in the Bronx, says BeWell has given her a better understanding of topics like physical health and mental health with practical information she can apply to her own life—for example, breathing exercises to manage stress. The program has also served as a support system. “If I have something on my mind, I can’t focus and succeed academically,” says Baez, who is now applying to college. “I like to know there are other people there if I have a question. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I have someone to talk to.”

The BridgeUP and BeWell programs provide a path for Baez and other students—many of whom are children of immigrants and the first in their family to go to college—to go places they might not have otherwise. To help them transition successfully to college, BeWell created a “survival guide” to instill advice on topics like time management and utilizing college resources to stay healthy.

“It’s not easy to be healthy and succeed academically in high school no matter where you live. For these students, it can be an extra challenge,” says Renee Cohall, director of special initiatives at the Columbia Mailman Harlem Health Promotion Center, which administers BeWell. “What we’re doing is equipping them with knowledge and support to realize their biggest dreams.”

“We’re enormously proud of all the students we serve and are grateful to be a part of their success,” adds Alwyn Cohall, director of the Harlem Health Promotion Center and professor of Sociomedical Sciences. “We’re with them all the way.”

For more information about BeWell, go to www.bewellbridgeup.org. If you are a student interested in volunteering, contact Renee Cohall at rmc49@cumc.columbia.edu