Students join the Great American Condom Campaign (now known as the Condom Collective) for many reasons-maybe you have several friends who’ve had difficulty affording the cost of contraception, you’re aware of how the ability to plan weather or when you get pregnant can impact your education, or you understand how condom availability can reduce the rate of STIs. Although everyone has a right to make healthy choices, there are many things that can prevent someone from obtaining something as simple as a condom.So, what would it take for your college to provide free condoms? Getting your school to make condoms free and available may seem like a far-fetched idea at first, but in reality, many universities already understand the benefits of having condoms available and provide them in their student health center. If your school placed a condom dispenser in a few bathrooms on campus, imagine the difference this simple change could make in student’s sexual health!
Check out this Q & A with Bobbi-Marie Mendoza, a former GACC participant who successfully got Whittier College to provide free condoms, for an example of how you can make this change happen at your school.
Q: What led you to becoming an activist for free condoms at Whittier College?
A: When I attended Whittier, I heard friends talk about barriers to obtaining condoms on campus, and I thought that I should try and cooperate with the school to make condoms available to the student body-that’s what got me started.
Q: Why do you think it is important for universities to provide free condoms to students?
A: College students have a high risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STIs). Because a lot of them spend time on campus and many of them live in the dorms, I thought that normalizing condom use by having free condoms that were accessible in a living and learning environment would make students more likely to adopt healthy sexual behaviors-not only in college, but hopefully these positive and healthy behaviors would be with them throughout their lives.
Q: As a student activist, what steps did you take to make condoms freely available on your campus?
A: I found local public health organizations in the community, emailed these agencies, told them about my idea, and asked if they were willing to help. I was able to get donations from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. They donated 16 condom dispensers and Condom Nation gave us 40,200 condoms. That wasn’t enough-that was to help us start the program-so then I contacted my student government. I asked them for 22 condom dispensers so that every student would have equal access to condoms on campus and so that every restroom would have a condom dispenser. I reached out to my school administration, told them about the donations I received, and asked them if they were willing to work with me. I then worked with the residential staff to strategically plan the location of the condom dispensers and come up with the logistics of how they would be filled, how they would be installed, and so on. Once this was in place, I organized an event with the help of a local nonprofit-Whittier Rio Hondo Aids Project (WRHAP) — to promote the new program and to educate students about it. Then it launched!
Q: What pushback did you receive for your activism and what kept you motivated in the face of opposition?
A: Some people didn’t like my program because they didn’t think it was the school’s responsibility to give students easy access to contraceptives. I would always get comments like, “you know they are young adults, it’s their decision, why should we help them?” What kept me motivated was knowing that my efforts would make a difference in my school and that’s what got me through. I knew that by implementing a structural level intervention in the college living and learning environment, safe sex would be normalized, and students would gradually adopt healthy habits-that’s what kept me motivated.
Q: What do you say when people ask why an institution of higher education should provide condoms? Why did you see it as the school’s responsibility to make condoms available?
A: Many think of the college as solely an academic institution. Yes, college promotes intellectual growth, but it also promotes independence: during this time of academic exploration students often explore their sexual identity and engage in sexual behavior. What happens in a student’s personal life does affect the school: for example, if there is an outbreak of STIs, it affects the school because that is a public health issue within their environment and they have to ultimately deal with the consequences of that. I think colleges should address the personal lives of students through the promotion of healthy sexual habits in order to prevent health consequences.
Q: You talked about how you reached out to local organizations for donations, and in a previous conversation we talked about how once you had graduated you had difficulty ensuring that your school would continue refilling these condom dispensers. I’m wondering-if you had actually pressured your school to provide condoms-meaning rather than getting an outside group to donate condoms, getting your school to change their policy and fund the expense of free condoms in their budget instead-how do you think this would have impacted the outcome?
A: In hindsight, if I had to do it again I would get written commitment from the school to ensure they were fully invested in sustaining this program over the long term. I didn’t know if my idea would be successful-I winged it and I learned a lot after, and if I were to coach somebody trying to do the same thing I’d probably give them advice to do it differently. If it is not a pressing issue, colleges are less likely to take action on their own. Rather than taking preventative measures so they don’t have a public health epidemic, colleges are like “oh well this isn’t a problem,” but then once the STI rates go up they’re like “we should probably do something about this!” From my experience, I found that colleges don’t want to take on an extra expense, and because of this they are more likely to shut down proposals that require them to fully commit their resources. I have found that they are more receptive to help when they have an incentive. My recommendation for student activists-I am not saying they should do my approach. It just randomly happened to work for me; every school is different based on their leadership. If they can frame their idea for a free condom distribution strategy to show that it benefits the school to fully commit to making condoms available, I think that is a much better approach.
Q: Once the program was implemented, what did your research show you about the effectiveness of providing condoms for free at your school?
A: The research surveyed 12% of the Whittier College student body, and found that the program effectively reduced barriers to attaining contraception- accessibility, availability, acceptability, and economic barriers. I also found that the condom dispensers was the primary way for students to get condoms on campus- that was a pretty big finding, and I thought that was pretty cool. And in the residence halls, just having the dispensers present alone increased safe sex awareness on campus, and it also increased condom negotiation with student’s partners. People reported that they had more conversations about using a condom than before.
Q: If condoms were freely available to all college students how do you think this would impact people’s lives?
A: I think that students having access to condoms will reduce STI rates, unintended pregnancies, and it will ultimately teach them healthy sexual health behaviors.
Q: Do you have any advice for folks who want to advocate for their school to provide free condoms?
A: Persistence is critical. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, when you try to promote change by shaking up the status quo, you will experience a lot of pushback. But you just have to work through it-I view no as the next opportunity: it doesn’t matter what obstacles you face there is a way to overcome that obstacle.
To contact Bobbi-Marie, email firstname.lastname@example.org