College freshmen have a lot to do their first month on campus. Talking about sexual health and alcohol abuse, however, is typically not high on their list. Melissa Early Ruwitch ’89 understands this, but raises the topic anyway.

As chief of health promotion services at Washington University in St. Louis, Ruwitch oversees programs to educate not just the 1,500 freshman but the entire student body on issues such as mental health, stress reduction, sexual health, alcohol use, and sexual violence.

“The first six weeks of the college experience are so dangerous on the topics of sexual assault and alcohol and other drugs,” Ruwitch said. “We don’t want to leave anything to chance.”

Ruwitch’s team starts its programming early each fall. During orientation, upperclassmen present a skit about sexual assault called The Date and lead discussions after the performance. The play is powerful, she said, and an effective tool to get students talking about difficult subjects.

Her efforts don’t stop there. Ruwitch oversees peer education programs and each year trains a dozen sophomores as health liaisons to each freshman dorm. These student ambassadors—typically premed students—act as an outreach arm to the university’s student health services, making crucial connections and referring students, if needed, to services on campus.

Prevention and risk reduction are paramount. “We want to be proactive and connect people to their resources,” she said. Through dorm events, bulletin boards, e-newsletters, and one-on-one contacts, the ambassadors bring the issues directly to the students. The health liaisons take their jobs seriously, Ruwitch notes, but are creative and have fun with their programming.

Ruwitch had a similar experience at Colby, where the St. Louis native ran a women’s group and started the group Colby Against Sexual Assault. After college, in Washington, D.C., she landed a job at a consulting company whose clients championed women’s issues such as reproductive health, breast cancer research, and passage of the Family Medical Leave Act, for which Ruwitch wrote testimony that was read on Capitol Hill.

Though Ruwitch is still working on the same issues that she was at Colby—spitting in the wind, she calls it—she pushes on. New initiatives to tackle these perennial problems, coupled with passionate student leaders, renew her.  

“We’re always making things better and reaching more people. And critically analyzing what we do to make sure it’s worth all the effort,” she said. “You have to keep mixing it up and keep your messages out there all year long.”

Laura Meader