“More students here have heard of Matthew Shepard... than are aware of the harassment and violence just four blocks away.”


Health educator, Office of Health Education
Length of service:
6 1/2 years
Other stuff:
An avid cyclist, reader and film buff — he’s seen all of Michael Apted’s every-seven-years films following the lives of a group of British children, the latest being “42 Up.”

Photo credit goes here

Kurt Conklin is a big believer in prevention.

When a rainbow flag outside his Powelton Village home made him the target of anti-gay harassment, he and his neighbors — who showed their support for him by flying rainbow flags from their homes — redoubled their efforts to promote town-gown dialogue with Drexel University students as a means of forestalling future trouble.

And as a health educator, he serves as “den mother” to undergraduates who want to help prevent sexual assault and sexually-transmitted diseases. In other words, he trains and advises peer educators for two groups, Facilitating Learning About Sexual Health (FLASH) and Students Together Against Acquaintance Rape (STAAR).

But it was a prevention project of a different sort that won him one of this year’s Models of Excellence Awards. (For a complete list of winners, see “Model employees set tone for University.”) That project involved setting up a course on alcohol abuse in which students developed strategies to reduce binge drinking on campus (Current, Feb. 25, 1999). As it turned out, the for-credit seminar, developed with fellow health educator Kate Ward-Gaus, helped Penn administrators as they tried to revise campus alcohol policy in the wake of a tragedy.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for the course?
We believed that our peer educators do a type of community service, but one that’s more directly about the Penn community. But this work [health education] can benefit the larger West Philadelphia community.
   So I enrolled in [Center for Community Partnerships Director Ira Harkavy’s Urban University-Community Relationships course] because I had heard about [him] and really wanted to know more about his philosophy of community partnerships and community service.
   Then after enrolling in it, I realized, here was an opportunity to do a project, and it was really Ira and Lee [Benson, professor emeritus of history and course co-instructor] who suggested tackling the alcohol issue.
   So at that point I introduced them to Kate, who is the in-house alcohol educator, and between the two of us, with their support and encouragement, we cranked out a syllabus as fast as we could.

Q. How did the students like the course?
A. [to Ward-Gaus] Well, what would you say?
Ward-Gaus: I would say it was a resounding success. Our goal was that there be something that could be implemented. We had a sense of budgets and what didn’t work and what has promise. And then, what happened last year at the same time that the course was going on, in March, was the death of Michael Tobin (C’94).
   For that reason alone, I think the very first run of that particular course will be different than any other run, because here they are developing these strategies to reduce alcohol abuse and you have a death on your campus.
Conklin: And some of our students ended up sitting on the Provost’s Working Group on Alcohol Abuse. Thank goodness.
Ward-Gaus: Yeah. Because then what happened was there was this [additional] level of support that went into the projects they were working on.
Conklin: And [the students] said that they felt like their work was really meaningful because it had direct applicability not only to Penn’s quality of life, but to the quality of life in West Philadelphia.

Q. Now, this spring, you taught a new course dealing with sexual health?
Yeah. It’s very likely to be adopted in the Nursing School for next spring by a professor, Loretta Sweet Jemmott.

Q. Any other courses in the pipeline?
Well, I have this fantasy that we may be able to offer next year, or the year after that, a course on body image and also on sexual violence.

Q. Would you like to have Dr. Rodin as the faculty member offering the course?
That would be really exciting. And I think Dr. Rodin would point out that we’re blessed at Penn to have a rather interesting variety of professors from a variety of disciplines who can also provide perspective on that.

Q. Has being openly gay helped or hindered your relations with the students you work with?
I think it’s rarely a factor, but when it is, I think that being openly gay merely provides an opportunity for students to see a role model on the staff of the University comfortable with who he is. It may help students regardless of sexual orientation who join these [peer education] programs be more comfortable talking about the issue. And it may raise awareness on the part of straight students who really haven’t met anybody else who’s lesbian, gay or bisexual in their social lives in the student population.

Q. Did the students you work with have any reaction when news of your being harassed hit?
Student awareness of this particular problem at Penn is very low. More students here have heard of Matthew Shepard or are aware of the incident in Wyoming than they are aware of the harassment and violence just four blocks away.


Originally published on May 18, 2000