Amy J. Blue Award winner Donnovan Yisrael, guiding students to good choices

Donnovan Yisrael, who has been on staff at Vaden Health Center since 1998, has been trying to understand and, more important, trying to get the students he works with to understand, why they engage in risky behaviors, whether it's regretted sex, drinking too much or what he calls his "über-example" – not wearing bicycle helmets.

L.A. Cicero Donnovan Somera Yisrael  portrait

One of the most meaningful aspects of winning the Amy Blue Award is keeping the memory of a lost loved one alive, says Donnovan Somera Yisrael.

When Donnovan Somera Yisrael returned to work after taking a week off for Passover, he found his work area festooned with balloons, stars and glitter. There was tinsel, too, he said, "more like a hula skirt" around the edge of his desk.

Yisrael, manager of relationship and sexual health programs at Vaden Health Center, had been named one of this year's Amy J. Blue Award winners. His coworkers went all out.

Along with Denni Dianne Woodward, associate director of the Native American Cultural Center, and Steve Papier, supervisor of engineering trades in Land Buildings and Real Estate, Yisrael will be feted again, on May 16, during the annual Amy J. Blue Award ceremony. The celebration takes place in Lagunita Court (on Santa Teresa Street, across from Roble Field) from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

Asked what the award means to him, Yisrael will first tell you that he likes attention and he likes to talk. But, he admits, the honor has been a very humbling experience, especially knowing "that there are SO MANY very dedicated Stanford employees (nominated or not) who could get this award," he wrote in an email.

Yisrael first came to Stanford in 1985 as a freshman. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1989 and a master's in sociology in 1990.

He began his career as a sexual health educator in 1992 with the San Mateo County AIDS Program and then with the YWCA, serving middle and high schools in Santa Clara County.

"In those early jobs, I applied the skills of critical analysis I learned from Stanford," Yisrael says, adding that his job was to help demystify and destigmatize "this scary disease."

But, as good as the curriculum was, "what it wasn't doing was getting to the root of people's motivations for unsafe sex, which you would think would be the main goal of such a thing."

In fact, at Vaden, where Yisrael has been on staff since 1998, he has been trying to understand and, more important, trying to get the students he works with to understand, why they engage in risky behaviors, whether it's regretted sex, drinking too much or, what he calls his "über-example," not wearing bicycle helmets.

Yisrael can riff on the latter topic for hours.

"There's no lack of knowledge there. Students know what the role of a piece of foam strapped to their head is," he says. "And, yet, you have more protection on your iPhone."

Students say they don't wear helmets because they make them look "dorky," Yisrael says, adding that undergraduates associate "dorky" with graduate students. Yet, when he asks those undergrads how many are going to graduate school, nearly all raise their hands.

Yisrael says he'd like to ask pop music star Lady Gaga to "slap on" a cool helmet during her next concerts, put her name or some gadgets on them and sell those helmets for $1,000 each. He has no doubt undergraduates would buy them.

Yisrael says that there have been "great strides" in bike safety on campus. For his part, he practices what he preaches. He can be seen tooling around campus in a shark helmet, a helmet with a small brain on top or one with a broom mounted upside down.

"My theory is that by dressing up your helmet in a goofy way, you are sending the message to those that see you that 'yes, I know helmets are goofy and mine is the goofiest of all.' In any case, my helmets get a lot of positive attention."

But while Yisrael is pretty animated when he talks about helmets or the lack of them, bike safety is not in his title.

His primary role – manager of relationship and sexual health programs – is something he has been thinking about since his early teens.

Donnovan Mateo Somera was born in Annapolis, Md., where his father, who had joined the U.S. military in the Philippines, was stationed at the Naval Academy. He lived in Vallejo until second grade, then spent most of his youth in Sacramento. (He converted to Judaism in 1998, and he and his wife, Aly, took the name Yisrael when they married.)

At the age of 14, Yisrael recalls being the only contestant in a speech contest sponsored by Catholic Filipinos in the Central Valley. It was hot. Flies were buzzing around. There was no air conditioning. He was wearing a corduroy suit. His topic was the seventh commandment – Thou shalt not commit adultery.

"I won, obviously. Looking back, I think the people were a little shocked. 'Why is this kid talking to us about marriage and fidelity?' And that's what I do today. I do talks on love and relationships, obviously from a different perspective.

Let's talk about sex

The titles of some of the talks Yisrael gives to students are no less provocative. They include "Pimps, Wimps, Whores and Bores: How Gender Roles Affect Sexual Health and Everything Else," "Why I Want What I Can't Have: Frustrating and Problematic Dynamics in Romantic Relationships," "You Can't Be Happy If You Can't Be Sad: How Emotional Intelligence Will Help You Deal with Disappointment AND Jump for Joy" and "Using Gratitude and Self-Compassion to Turn Your Stress into Happiness," the latter co-created and presented with Timothy Huang, '14, Yisrael's "happiness intern."

"On any given week, he goes to at least one undergraduate dorm, house or cooperative to give a talk on sexual health or positive psychology," Huang wrote in a letter nominating Yisrael for the Amy Blue Award. "If you have the opportunity to see him at one of these talks, you will find that he is in his complete element, sharing his scientific knowledge, advice and his own experiences in making his point about how we should learn to reappraise our situations and inject more compassion into our lives. I can't tell you how many students have returned to Donnovan after a year or so thanking him genuinely for the support he provided during their difficult time. It's clear that students seek him out because of the full presence he lends to students."

Much of Yisrael's work is getting students to define what they are feeling so they can get to the root of their emotions and ultimately exhibit more healthy behaviors. A big part of his approach is to not put students on the defensive.

"If I want to convince students to reconsider having drunken, random hookups, I could look at them and say, 'You're stupid, stop it.' Or I can say, 'Actually, all humans need human touch. We need love. You were biologically programmed for sex, especially at your age. We want to be validated. We want to be beautiful. We want to be loved and we want to touch others. The motivation for having a hookup is one that is absolutely valid. It's your human right, even.' And they look at me like: 'Is this guy crazy? He is not telling us not to do it?' The last thing I want to do is add to a person's existing shame about their sexual behaviors or desire because, actually, I believe this shame is the root of why people engage in risky behaviors. I say: 'It's not about the "what." It's about the "how." It's how you're getting to the goal that is problematic. Their charge is to find safer and maybe even more fulfilling ways to get these needs met.'"

According to Yisrael, the same can be said about student’s use of alcohol as a stress reliever.  Many Stanford students, he says – including himself during his undergraduate years – spend much of their time stressed about maintaining a certain GPA, getting into graduate or professional school, taking the MCAT, passing the bar, living up to their parents' expectations, etc. “For many, the only time they get the feeling of ‘free time,' when the internal voices of achievement and pressure turn off,  is when they are in a state of intoxication.”

"We are time impoverished," he says, noting that "time affluence," a key tenet of positive psychology, is vital to decreasing stress and finding happiness.

Remembering those who have gone

One of the most meaningful aspects of winning the Amy Blue Award, he says, is keeping the memory of a lost loved one alive.

"The fact that this award was created by people who loved Amy Blue, so that she would not be forgotten, means the world to me," says Yisrael, who understands all too well the need to honor those who have died.

On May 3, 2006, his 17-month-old daughter Micah Mei died as a result of a seizure disorder. Aly, his wife, volunteers with Bereavement Services at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, and he is a volunteer with Kara, a grief support organization in Palo Alto. The couple has two other daughters, Isaiah and Avishai.

Yisrael says his role as a grief educator and group facilitator has become fully integrated into the work he does on campus, particularly with the recent deaths of undergraduates Sam Wopat and Cady Hine.

"I am passionate about teaching the skills and sharing the perspectives that help people to allow their grief to bring them healing, and I am passionate about remembering and helping people to remember those who have died."

Yisrael says he is honored to be a part of remembering Blue, who died during Yisrael's junior year at Stanford.

"It is so very meaningful to me."

Kathleen J. Sullivan contributed to this story.