Health Educator Katie Garcia with the Sexual Health Education Kit and CycleBeads

Believe it or not, college students are often hesitant to talk about their sex lives, but health educators need them to do exactly that in order to provide students with the best health services. We spoke with Katie Garcia, health educator at Vanderbilt University, to find out how she gets students to open up about sexual health issues.

Ms. Garcia’s program Gender Matters works to ensure that students have accurate information that helps them protect their sexual health and that they know about the range and variety of family planning methods and options available to them. As part of this program, Ms. Garcia gathers information and assesses student need in order to develop and implement programs, and she uses CycleBeads as part of her teaching toolkit.

The Situation

Katie Garcia is a program coordinator at Vanderbilt University’s Margaret Cuningim Women’s Center. The center creates programs, hosts events and provides resources for students on women and gender related topics. As the coordinator for the center’s program called, Gender Matters, Katie focuses on three areas of emphasis: Body Image, Sexual Health, and Parenting Guidance for students who are parents.

Katie was charged with helping students with these issues, and faced the challenge, particularly on sexual health issues, of how to get students to open up about topics on which they wanted information, but were too inhibited to ask about. The goal was not only to disseminate accurate information to the students as young adults, but also to expand their knowledge of the range and variety of contraceptive options available to them as choices.

The Solution

Margaret Cuningim's Women's Center at Vanderbilt UniversityReaching back on her past experience as a health educator, Katie started a pilot program, called “Let’s Talk About Sex, Vandy.” One of the first steps she took was to create a private, anonymous survey to gather information about what students already knew, what they wanted to learn about, and whether or not they were already sexual active.

The questions about sexual activity ranged from types of activity and protection to how their spirituality may or may not affect their sexuality. The students could also write in their own questions, which would be answered later.

The survey was distributed through various channels such as residence hall meetings and online. Katie elicited increased interest from the students by playing to what she calls “the nosy factor.” According to Katie, “Everyone wants to know what their peers are doing.” So she would make student answers available on a group-identification basis, such as, “Cole House answered in such-and-such a way.”

Katie then set about organizing venues to hold Let’s Talk About Sex events and she found residence hall meetings were a good place to reach out to students. She created a safe, nonjudgmental environment, where important information could be presented and the write-in questions from the surveys or asked directly during the meeting could be answered.

To help convey information in a concrete way, Katie developed a sexual health education kit. Her goal was to expand the students’ knowledge of what is available. The kit contains a variety of sample items, including a wide range of contraceptives and sexual protection items, but also personal hygiene items, such as the Diva Cup, an ecological menstrual cup. In regard to contraception and fertility, she believes that,

“Choice is about much more than the stereotypical notion of choice. It is about making a plan and the concept of planning.” And in particular, “(It’s about) letting women know there are options beyond the pill. Many women do not want a hormonal method.”

Among the non-hormonal contraceptives displayed in the kit is a set of CycleBeads. Katie says it is one of the first items that attracts the eyes of the students and they’ll ask, “What are these? Tell me about these!” When she explains its use as a way to track the menstrual cycle and used as a natural method of birth control, the response is usually, “Oh, that’s cool!” and “I could use that!“ Regardless of which method students choose, if they are sexually active, Katie says that the CycleBeads as a visual, hands-on tool is excellent in general for explaining fertility and the timing of conception.


The Let’s Talk About Sex, Vandy program is now approximately a year and a half old. Katie has seen good results in terms of the number of students who are reached by the program and exposed to the sexual health information. She says that the survey response rate is 30% – 40%, which she considers high, especially for a traditionally conservative university. The meeting attendance is also high as the night we interviewed her she mentioned,

“I’ve done seven programs this semester alone. Tonight I’m going to present this program to 400 Fraternity men as a part of their Health Education Week. We are doing our best to change the dialogue on campus and to really focus on bringing positive sex education to the forefront.”

Katie was surprised at how open the students were in terms of answering the survey questions as well as in asking their own questions. She has found the student input valuable for assessing their knowledge and developing the program.

In regard to CycleBeads, Katie is an enthusiastic advocate, who feels that it should also be used more widely as an educational tool outside of the clinical setting. “CycleBeads is a fantastic teaching tool and it gets people talking.”

Posted in: Contraceptive Options, Fertility, Fertility Awareness, Interviews with Health Providers, Men and Family Planning, Womens Health

Tags: birth control, birth control options, contraception, CycleBeads, education, family planning, family planning options, fertility awareness, health education, Katie Garcia, natural birth control, natural family planning, sexual health, Vanderbilt University, women's health

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