Boynton to examine international student sexual health concerns

Cultural and language barriers make sex education and awareness difficult.

Branden Largent


During Welcome Week, Rawnaq Al-Gheithy was shocked to watch students putting on a sex education skit.

Sex was a taboo subject for the human resources development major, who grew up in Oman and Jordan.

“A lot of cultures are very closed off about sexual education,” Al-Gheithy said. “You just don’t talk about it.”

Boynton Health Service officials are investigating gaps in international students’ sexual education, possibly due to cultural differences or language barriers.

Several Boynton physicians have noticed an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, abnormal pap smears and positive pregnancy tests among international students this semester.

About a dozen physicians and nurse practitioners from Boynton met Thursday to discuss the trend, said Boynton Women’s Clinic associate director Lisa Mattson.

“I always think it’s interesting when a whole group of doctors are saying that we’re seeing an increase in this particular population,” Mattson said. “So something’s different than they’ve seen in the past.”

A lack of sex education among several international communities could be a factor, Mattson said.

She added that many of her patients have misconceptions about the effectiveness of condoms and the chances of pregnancy.

“Patients will tell me, ‘Well, I haven’t gotten pregnant yet, so I didn’t think it was a big deal,’” Mattson said.

Many students from different countries find it difficult to talk openly about sex, even to a physician, said Nan Sinchai, vice president of the Minnesota International Student Association.

“I can definitely see why this would be a problem,” Sinchai said.

University students from countries where sex is taboo might not use condoms and birth control because they don’t know how to get them, Al-Gheithy said.

Boynton has started collecting patient data to investigate physicians’ impressions, Chief Medical Officer Gary Christenson  said.

If Boynton finds international students do have higher STD and positive pregnancy test rates, Christenson said the health service will devise new outreach strategies.

Physicians have already started discussing ways to improve Boynton’s presence during orientation and Welcome Week, Mattson said.

One idea was to create a sexual health Jeopardy game during Welcome Week to make the discussion about sex education more engaging for international students.

Mattson said they also discussed increasing Boynton’s interaction with international student groups.

This summer, Boynton will start offering online health videos, including some for sexual health, translated into several languages, Boynton spokesman Dave Golden said.

“International students’ English is pretty good, but health information is complicated,” Golden said. “So we think translation into their own languages would be helpful.”

Student organizers at Boynton’s Sexual Health Awareness and Disease Education haven’t discussed the issue of international student sex education yet, said SHADE coordinator Scott Nason.

“I think it’s just so new that it hasn’t gotten our way yet,” he said.

Reaching out to international students could be a challenge, said MISA president Khoa Vu, because the students who need the education most might not listen.

Vu, an economics and mathematics junior, grew up in Vietnam, where sex education was a brief lesson during his biology class.

“I doubt that people will be open about this,” he said.

Al-Gheithy said breaking barriers when international students first arrive and telling them about safer sex resources at the University are important.

“[International students] have access to all of those things,” Al-Gheithy said. “And they need to know that.”