SUNY Oneonta Health Educator Rebecca Harrington isn’t afraid to tackle the taboo topics. After all, two of her best-known on-campus initiatives have been the Hump Day Wagon (a weekly, traveling contraceptive giveaway) and Sex & Pizza (an engaging sex education program for incoming freshmen).
Coming up with fun ways to talk about the tough stuff is just one part of Harrington’s job. As head of the Office of Health Education, she must be an expert on a variety of topics, including mental and sexual health and alcohol and drug use and abuse. She acts as a consultant for students and staff who request topical materials for class work, presentations, service projects and personal use and also leads the college’s Know Violence and Alcohol & Other Drug committees.
Some days, Harrington visits residence halls or classrooms to offer programming on specific topics. Other days, she works with her student interns to dream up new health education campaigns. Two recent initiatives have included a large-scale “Know Violence” T-shirt giveaway campaign designed to educate students on the basics of sexual assault and relationship violence, and the development of “Lego Health Educator,” a social media-based campaign that uses intricate Lego scenes–which Harrington builds and photographs herself–to illustrate a variety of health topics.
Every day includes some kind of one-on-one work with others, which Harrington loves.
“I’m super appreciative of meeting new people on campus and getting to engage in these important conversations,” she said. “I feel so lucky that I get to work in an environment like this, and I can count on one hand the number of days I haven’t wanted to go to work in my 16 years here.”
Health education wasn’t always part of Harrington’s plan. She originally wanted to be a K-12 music teacher but eventually decided it wasn’t a good fit for her. After stints at a local domestic violence support services agency and a small community-based theater company, she realized great potential in working at a college.
Although Harrington isn’t teaching music in the traditional sense, it’s still very much a part of her life and work. One of her recent Lego Health Educator campaigns sought to educate students on relationship violence by pointing out problematic lyrics in popular songs and encouraging students to think critically about their message.
With a knack for picking up musical instruments, Harrington is also a member of Blues Maneuver, one of the busiest bands in the Catskills, and many nights, you can find her singing and playing the tenor saxophone onstage during the group’s gigs. She’s also teaching herself to play the banjo.
Making a Difference Beyond Oneonta
Harrington’s work to educate and normalize discussion of important health topics is vital to the campus community, but it’s also appreciated across the State University of New York system and beyond. She serves on several SUNY committees and task forces and led the system’s development of SPARC, an online training program that helps colleges and universities teach their students to prevent sexual, interpersonal and related violence.
Since SPARC was launched in 2017, more than 150 colleges across the country have implemented the curriculum, and SUNY anticipates the training of 1 million college students through this course within three to five years.
Other proud career moments were when Harrington was recognized by the American College Health Association as a Best New Professional in 2009 and when she received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Professional Service in 2018.
But awards aren’t what keep Harrington going. What’s most rewarding, she says, are the one-on-one experiences she gets to have with students.
“I love when I get to see them have ‘aha’ moments, whether it’s realizing the importance of mental health and how to manage stress or learning how to recognize relationship abuse,” she said. “That’s the true evaluation of a job well done – those kinds of moments.”