Here's What Your College Student Should Know About Sexual Health on Campus
Eleanor Chalstrom, a senior at Iowa State University, was contemplating a contraception switch, and headed to the Thielen Student Health Center at her school to get more information about getting an intrauterine device (IUD).
"The doctor that ended up doing the whole birth control situation—she was so incredible," says Chalstrom. "She answered all of my questions, gave me this big packet of information, and she even introduced me to the nurses that would be in the room when the procedure happened."
The doctor also offered Chalstrom the opportunity to switch providers if she wasn't comfortable after the consultation. But Chalstrom decided to go through the process of getting an IUD there and her opinion of her campus health center was transformed. The fact the providers work with a narrower age range added another element of comfort for Chalstrom who felt seeing her primary care provider in her hometown would have been awkward.
"Especially with the women's health and the sexual health side, it was so nice to have a female doctor who specializes in [my demographic]," says Chalstrom.
Iowa State University is just one of many college campuses across the country equipped to treat and take care of young adults through campus health centers. These are a convenient option for many students who require easy, accessible, and affordable health care, compared to a larger scale hospital or clinic in their college town. Campuses also specialize in providing sexual health resources at a reduced and oftentimes free rate. They are also where students can turn in the event of sexual assault—an increasing issue on college campuses.
What Campus Health Centers Offer
Along with assistance for all contraception options, the Thielen Student Health Center also distributes condoms across campus, offers HIV testing for all genders, Pap smears, pelvic and breast exams, as well as check-up, diagnosis, and treatment of STIs and STDs.
Universities across the U.S. provide similar services.
At NYU, students can receive services including annual OB-GYN visits, contraceptive care, and consulting a "sexpert" about all questions or concerns they have relating to the topic. NYU also partners with neighboring hospitals and clinics to serve as Rape Crisis Centers should students ever require their services.
At UCLA, gender diverse care is prioritized more than at some other American universities. Under student-specific health insurance, hormone therapy and gender-affirming care is available for those who wish to take advantage of those services. The university's Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center has been recognized as a LGBTQ Healthcare Equality Leader by the Human Rights Campaign Healthcare Equality Index.
At the University of Texas, for medical services only, students can refer to their on-campus clinic. There is a large emphasis on the cost of these services. There is a base $10 office fee plus the cost of any potential labs or extra tests and procedures that may need to be done. Students at the University of Texas can also opt to receive a free Sexual Assault Forensic Exam at either the University Health Center, SAFE Alliance, or a nearby hospital or neighboring clinic.
Mary Raman, MSN, ARNP, who specializes in gynecological health at Iowa State University and is also a parent to college-aged students, encourages parents and incoming college students to include the student health center on their list of campus buildings and services to research when choosing a university. "As a parent and a potential incoming student, find out what it is, take five minutes and learn about your student health center because a lot of them are great, great resources with very dedicated professionals," says Nurse Raman.
Many students who come to Iowa State University's health center often are unaware of everything it offers. "What I hear time and time again is, 'Oh, I didn't know I could come here for that,' and I'm sure that's true on other college campuses," adds Nurse Raman.
She also urges college students to really take advantage of the services their student health center provides, because it doesn't reflect the affordability and accessibility of reproductive and sexual health care once they graduate.
"I try to kind of gently let students know that it doesn't get better than this in terms of access to care, in terms of the whole caring community across the whole university," says Nurse Raman. "This is a great time in your life to take advantage of that. Not only because it's highly accessible, but because it's a great time in your life to be learning about health care."
Sexual Assault Is a Reality on College Campuses
Students should also know what resources are available to them if they are the victim of sexual assault. According to RAINN, 26.4 percent of undergraduate females experience sexual assault or rape through violence, physical force, or incapacitation. While 6.8 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault through those same means.
Since the start of the school year in August 2021, there have been 15 reports of sexual assaults on Iowa State's campus. That's up from three reported sexual assaults during the entire previous academic year. Students who report sexual assault at Iowa State are referred to the Mary Greeley Medical Center, the local hospital in the city of Ames. There, students will meet with members of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), where they will be examined, counseled, and comforted throughout the examination and evaluation process. Iowa State also provides on-campus counseling, support from the Iowa State Police Department, and advocacy initiatives to assist the student if they are comfortable taking advantage of them.
But parental support really matters too. It's important for parents to keep in mind that with newfound freedom and independence, your college-aged student may feel ashamed, embarrassed, and stuck in terms of what to do next if they are assaulted. Most victims can also be in a state of shock and feel like they "messed up." It's critical to rewrite the narrative when sexual assault victims speak out and encourage them to know they did not "mess up" or do anything wrong.
"The first thing I encourage parents to do is start by believing their children," says Jada Alexander, a sexual assault campus outreach and prevention advocate, who works at ACCESS, an assault care center located near Iowa State University's campus. "A great deal of the healing process is having your negative experiences validated."
At ACCESS, they teach the B.A.S.E.R. model, which practices believing, affirming, supporting, empowering, and referring.
"I think most children value transparency in their parents or guardians—fostering that kind of transparency around sex, relationships, bodily autonomy, and other topics like these," says Alexander. "A lot of students seek out validation in their peers because they are all navigating their lives together. If we start those conversations at home in a healthy way, I feel that children will then feel more comfortable and informed with their parents."
RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, advises parents and guardians to abide by these narratives when their child comes to them with the information that they have been sexually assaulted. RAINN emphasizes that there is no "right" reaction.
The Bottom Line
Campus health centers are a great resource for college students to take care of their health. It also offers them the freedom to decide what to do with their sexual health, which is not often talked about or thought of but should be. While it is important to include parents and guardians in conversations surrounding a young adult's health, at the end of the day the decision is ultimately theirs.