Back to school and getting schooled: The sexual health of your college student

[The following is the next installment of our monthlong education/back-to-school series.]

written by Anti-Racist columnist Bianca I Laureano

When the back to school sales are over, all the bags are packed, and the books are purchased, something always gets forgotten: the sexual health of your college student. Working as an Orientation Advisor at the large public university I attended for undergrad and eventually becoming the Assistant and Acting Sexual Health Coordinator there, I noticed students and parents are not ready for different aspects of sexuality and sexual health as they are for dorm room living and test taking.! From these experiences I’ve come up with a few areas that parents can investigate further for themselves and for their children who are off to college. Even if your student has spent one or more years in college, it’s never too late to find out what resources are available.

Orientation is just as much for your child as it is for you. Some schools offer an orientation for parents (for an additional fee, so it may not be fully accessible for everyone), yet if you are able to afford to attend, this is a great opportunity to get your questions answered about the logistics and protocol at your child’s school.

Many parents often focus on tuition payments, grading, library hours, housing, campus safety, meal plans, and parking/commuting options. For that reason, many orientation programs have those areas as a focus. It’s also a good idea to look into what student programs are available, ask how the resident directors are trained to work with students who may experience homesickness or depression, and ask if there are walking escorts for students who study or work late on campus. At some orientation programs there may be a student panel that can provide insight into what it is like to be a student on the campus. My two years as one of a handful of Orientation Advisors of Color, I never had parents of Color or parents of children of Color ask me about race relations, retention efforts for students of Color, or supportive spaces and communities.

If your student is transferring from another college they may not have the same type of orientation as first-year students. This does not mean that you cannot visit the school or set up appointments to meet with people to have your questions answered. The school I went to had many student workers, so if you want to speak with a director of a program versus a student worker (or graduate assistant, who usually knows more than the directors at times) it is a good idea to make an appointment if you can.

Many college websites have up to date information, and others do not. I’ve worked in large public colleges, the City University of New York, and private colleges. The information on the websites varied, but telephone numbers were usually always correct.

Get to Know Health Services
Two of the main concerns that comes the closest to the topic of sexual health include: safety on campus at night, and use of the health center if there is an injury. Perhaps these are coded questions that parents ask, but it still keeps the conversation and resources about sexual health silent.

Many health services have a nurse, or nurse practitioner, and if it is a large school medical doctors that work in the facility. At my undergraduate school we even had a lab on campus so that our blood work or other specimens were processed there and the waiting period was not too long. The point here is that staff are usually trained, certified, and provide medical care. They usually are not students, but there may be student workers in the facility helping with check-in and greeting. (This may not be the same situation when it comes to mental health services. At my campus graduate and doctoral students in the psychology program offered counseling services and a licensed Psychologist supervised them. If this is of interest to you please inquire specifically who offers services.).

It also is all right to ask about what reproductive health services are offered at the health center and how students can pay for them if there is a fee. Please remember that reproductive health services do not always mean free condoms or birth control methods counseling, but also include HIV and other STI screening and testing, pregnancy testing, pap smear and pelvic examination. If your child’s gender identity is male, there are sometimes specific reproductive health services for men. Biological males have a right to know about the “morning after pill”/emergency contraception, that they can speak to a doctor about their reproductive health concerns, and that there is a place for them to make sure they stay healthy in all ways.

If your child is on an athletic scholarship drug testing will be a component of their time at the school. Unfortunately, conversations about drug testing only focus on illegal narcotics and sometimes do not make connections to alcohol and tobacco availability. Because these are legal substances the drug tests used may not detect the use of these substance (or if they do it may not matter), yet the damages that excessive drinking and tobacco does to the body are real. The laws regarding sexual assault under the influence of any substance are very clear. Please make sure you understand them and that your child does as well.

If your child has a disability the college they choose must make their facilities, services, and activities accessible to your child. This is the law. Depending on the disability, your student may have to demonstrate documentation of their disability if they need services such as interpreters, longer examination times, or quiet space outside of the classroom. Your child deserves and has earned the opportunity to excel in a college environment just as much as any able-bodied student. Encourage your student to speak with their professors at the beginning of each semester. It helps me prepare best for all my students if I know ahead of time that I will need to have films that have subtitles, submit an exam ahead of time to Disability Support Services on campus, or when to expect an absence from a student. Your child, regardless of ability, is still going to receive confidential services, including in the health center if they seek health services.

Many health centers provide out-patient services, which means if your child needs overnight care they will be sent to an area hospital (and charged for the ambulance that is sent to pick them up if this is done). If you or your child does not have health insurance it is important to understand what the protocol is for such situations. Often there is a list of referrals that staff and doctors can share with students. The referrals are often to local practices where staff is familiar with the campus referring students to their practice.

Ask About Confidentiality & Billing
If your child is over 18, chances are their medical records will not be shared with you unless there is written permission to do so by your child. This is important to know especially for parents who are paying for their child’s expenses. Often parents would call our health center asking to know what specific “lab work” was done that appeared on their bill. Billing is very coded through health centers as well, and some facilities may list many different things as “lab work” such as urine samples and other blood work. There are so many reasons to take these samples that it is not going to be helpful to assume they are automatically connected to some type of sexual health topic. It also will not be helpful to get upset with health center staff that will not reveal the information to you; they may not have it to begin with, or are not allowed to share it by law. Usually if your child is under 18 you will be called for some health procedures. It’s important to know what these are if they are of concern to you.

There are some times when parents have refused to pay their child’s medical bill because no one would tell them what the charges were. Please also keep in mind that refusing to pay a bill usually limits your child’s ability to do certain things. These vary by school, but the schools I’ve attended would not provide parking permits, library books checked out for extended periods or interlibrary loans, the ability to register for classes, or mail the degree your child has earned.

Unfortunately, this is also the protocol with students and families who cannot afford to pay student bills. Look into if there is a late fee that is added to your student’s bill, how much it is, and if it is monthly or a one-time fee. Policies change with regards to billing and outstanding bills. There were several times in my graduate work where I had to have the chair of my department request my registration block be lifted so I could register for classes so that my student loans could be approved and I could pay my bill. Mid-semester my college decided to begin adding interest to outstanding balances, similar to credit cards in an effort to have outstanding bills paid. Because I was not familiar I was hit hard with an interest rate twice before noticing what it was. Keep an eye out for such occurrences.

Campus Safety
The topic of “safety” is extremely important to school officials, parents and students. It is not taken lightly. As a result, it is usually mentioned how campus security is enforced and what their role and presence is on the campus. Please keep in mind that if your student chooses to live off campus or live at home, the same security measures are in place for them. They may not have as much campus security surveillance as students who live on the campus, as they would work directly with area police, but their access to campus security does not change.

Please keep in mind that campus security is not the same as local police. They work together, but the campus security does not have the same authority as local police. On my undergraduate campus the security was called two-five’s because they were one half of “real” cops (aka five-oh’s). Even though we made fun of them, we utilized their services whenever we felt we needed them. Today, as a faculty member I still utilize campus security to help me get from my office to the bus stop when I teach late at night.

Sexual Assault & Rape Education, Prevention & Support
I’d encourage all parents of children attending college to ask specifically about sexual assault and/or rape prevention, education, and resources. Some schools have a strict code of student conduct that may lump consensual sex and sexual assault in the same category,  even when we know it’s not the same at all.

There remains a lot of misinformation about sexual assault, rape, and the resources available not only for survivors (who are of any gender identity), but also resources for friends and family. One of my mentor’s husband focuses on sexual violence among athletes and there is a lot of work to be done around power, control, and how that is connected to status on campus.

Keeping in mind how the age of your child allows them a level of confidentiality at health services, this may also apply in situations of assault and rape. I have several friends who was assaulted and/or raped by his/her partners in undergrad and some have chosen not to report it to authorities, but all have sought out physical and mental health services. All of them have chosen not to tell her parents because they “knew it would kill them.” This is the best way many of them know how to cope right now. Your children may not tell you everything, even when you may want them to regardless of how they believe you may react. This is not to scare you, but to let you know that there may be comfort in knowing if there is a protocol and services available if needed.

Queer Friendly Services
Regardless of how your child identifies, it is important to know if there are queer or LGBTQ specific/friendly services available. What I noticed as a student in undergrad was that if I knew about the services and people knew that I knew they existed, they came to me when they needed them. As an undergrad, away from home, struggling with my identity and place in the world, this knowledge about such resources made me confident. There are more ways to feel confident, intelligent, useful, and important besides earning “good” grades. For me knowing what was available for all communities was a space I excelled in and I know it can be for other students as well. For many LGBTQ students, such services available on or near their school have saved their lives.

I currently work at a Catholic college, but there are signs all over the campus of announcing and advertising “safe spaces” for LGBTQ students. Sometimes support comes in the most surprising places at the time our children need it the most.

A Welcomed Transition
College can be exciting and intimidating. It’s a transition for you, your family, and your child. One of the best ways to make the transition as smooth and enjoyable as possible is to make sure you know what is available in case your child or family is in need. If you are unsure how to begin a conversation with your child about their knowledge of a particular program or resource; remember open-ended questions. A technique I use with my students when teaching to assess if they understand a topic is to ask them to explain it to me in their own words. It never hurts to ask: “Can you tell me about the health center on campus?” or “What are some (social) groups you are interested in?” or “Tell me about the resident assistant in your dorm” or one I still hear to this day: “When do you think you’ll come home for a visit?”

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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