|When new students arrive at SU, they often receive guidance from peer advisors who help them sort through the intricacies of college life
Whitney Tatum ’07 remembers vividly the day she arrived on campus from her small hometown of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. She knew no one, was living in a dorm room with a stranger, and wasn’t sure where anything was or who might be able to help her. Her orientation felt more like disorientation. “I was completely overwhelmed and afraid,” Tatum says. “I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into.”
Fortunately Tatum was enrolled in a required peer advisory program through the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. Peer advisory and facilitation programs are found in every school and college at SU for incoming first-year students and transfers, and are designed to help new students make the transition to college life by providing academic and personal support. As part of the Whitman School’s peer program, Tatum took Perspectives of Business and Management, a course in which faculty are assisted by upper-class peer facilitators who help freshmen navigate their new environment and chosen majors. Through team projects, written and oral communication, and research, students develop an understanding of what the Whitman School expects of them academically, personally, and professionally. At the same time, they learn about contemporary management concepts, theories, and issues. The students are introduced to such resources as the school’s Office of Undergraduate Student Services and the Career Center, and are encouraged to establish supportive relationships with their academic advisors as well.
While Tatum thought the program was outstanding, she says her group struggled at times because the peer facilitator wasn’t always available to help them work through conflicts. The experience motivated Tatum to become a peer facilitator this year. “I didn’t want any other freshmen to feel the way I did,” says Tatum, who is majoring in general management and aspires to attend law school. “I got involved in an effort to help others and ease the process.”
Students who volunteer as peer advisors or facilitators in the various schools and colleges typically must be in good academic standing, must be recommended by a faculty member, and usually go through an interview with a selection committee. Some are required to complete a course that covers various areas of social development, for which they may receive academic credit. The inherent quality of peer advisors and facilitators is essential to the success of these programs. “If you have a good peer facilitator who does his or her job, your group will most likely work well together,” says Ugochi Igbokwe ’06, a Whitman School peer advisor. “When you are placed in a group of strangers, working together effectively is crucial.”
Even with great training, it’s hard to know how facilitators will guide and interact with their groups. According to Hanna Richardson, assistant dean for undergraduate student services at the Whitman School, the point is not necessarily to ensure that all groups have a smooth experience, but rather to give students an intense group experience that also teaches them, for better or worse, how groups work. “While it’s ideal to have a great facilitator who can guide a group into working well together, it can also be valuable to have an experience that is less positive,” Richardson says. “There is nothing like actual experience to help you figure out how to do things differently next time.”
Facilitators and advisors serve as lifelines, helping their younger peers unravel the new and complex intricacies of college life and, sometimes, life in general, from homesickness and roommate problems to dating dilemmas. “I can tell my advisor anything,” says School of Education student Doona Kim ’08. “She is such a great person to talk to about school because she is in my major and she knows everything and everyone. She mostly advises me on school, but I feel comfortable enough to tell her personal things.”
According to David Hines ’07, a peer advisor in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS), the advisor’s role is often like that of an older sibling, showing first-year students the ropes and offering sound been-there-done-that advice when needed. “This program makes for happier freshmen and helps them deal with the stressful acclimation to college and engineering,” he says. “Whether it is registering, problems with roommates, or deciding what classes to take, advisors make the process much easier and relieve some of the stress.”
For peer facilitators and advisors, the experience can be mutually rewarding, allowing them to build their resumes and develop essential personal skills that will assist them in their careers and in life. “At first I just thought I would be helping the students, but it is much more than that,” Tatum says. “It has improved my organizational skills and also my teamwork skills.” For the facilitators and advisors, it’s also an opportunity to gain leadership experience while making new friends. “I advised students on their schedules and in choosing the right courses to take,” says Melanie Armstrong ’05, a transfer peer facilitator in the Whitman School. “I talked with them about how much to get involved in on campus and what kind of organizations and groups would fit their lifestyles and interests. I also advised them on anything they were having problems with on campus and became a resource and friend in other areas as well. It gives students someone to trust—someone they can go to with questions that they may not feel comfortable asking an adult.”
Most peer facilitators and advisors are selected by their respective schools and colleges in the spring semester. They begin initial contact with their assigned team members—five to 20 incoming students—during the summer through e-mail exchanges, followed by events and introductions during New Student Orientation in the fall. Advisors are typically matched with first-year and transfer students by similarities, such as hometowns, majors, or interests. Once classes begin, the new students meet with their peer advisors several times a week, either through a required course or on a voluntary basis. Some programs are offered first semester only—which is the case for most involving transfer students—while others last the entire first year. “I came into SU as a transfer student and remember what it felt like to not be part of anything and not feel as welcome as the incoming freshmen,” Armstrong says. “I wanted to have the opportunity to tell other transfers how wonderful this school really is and how they can get involved and meet people.”
Some students also benefit from other student-support programs on campus that offer peer counseling for specific student populations. WellsLink, for instance, is a faculty-supported retention initiative for first-year students of color who are not sponsored by other programs, such as athletics. Among some of the other peer-to-peer initiatives are OrangeSeeds (see “Growing Leaders,” below) and the University’s learning communities, which are designed to promote academic as well as social success by grouping students in residence halls according to their programs of study or interests.
“Syracuse University purposefully creates programs like these to encourage student success, both academically and socially,” says Barry L. Wells, senior vice president and dean of student affairs. “It’s a priority here at Syracuse University to support our first-year students by helping them identify resources both inside and outside the classroom that will help ensure their satisfaction and success.”
But it’s not just the freshman or transfer student who learns through peer advisory programs. Most peer programs involve teaching components that target specific issues, many of which are related to particular disciplines. This teaching aspect helps the advisors grow professionally as well. “Being a peer facilitator in our program provides emerging leaders an opportunity to develop problem-solving skills,” Richardson says. “It teaches the business school ethic: teamwork and leadership.”
Richardson points out that collaboration in small groups has become a trend in the business industry. Working in peer groups gives participants a sense of ownership, enhancing their performance and commitment to a shared task. Group projects also challenge the facilitators, requiring them to negotiate issues with a lot of savvy, Richardson says. “There’s no doubt that our facilitators learn as much as our freshmen through this process.”
Although most facilitators and advisors are trained in many areas, sometimes problems will arise that they aren’t prepared for, or properly trained to handle, such as serious homesickness or depression. “Facilitators always have a faculty member as a resource when an individual student has personal or emotional issues,” Richardson says. “Facilitators are not expected to handle these situations, but are a great first line of communication so we can become aware of the situation.”
Many peer programs on campus have boards to “advise the advisors.” According to School of Education assistant dean Amie Redmond, the school’s peer advisory board members act as liaisons between the school and peer advisors and serve as co-instructors for a one-credit freshman seminar that is designed to increase the likelihood of success among new students. “We’re the School of Education and are dedicated to teaching, so it only makes sense that our peer advisory program carries a teaching component,” Redmond says.
In addition to acclimating new students to the University and their individual colleges and majors, some peer advising programs promote community engagement. For example, the Pathfinders program in ECS requires all freshmen to do community outreach. Students, for instance, may work with the Science and Technology Entry Program, an initiative sponsored by SU and the New York State Department of Education that provides tutorial and enrichment support to develop interest in math and science among middle and high school students who are from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. “Our peer advisors have to be well-rounded students in all areas of their lives to set an example for those they advise,” says Kathryn R. Drake, director of Student Support Programs and Programs Rooted In Developing Excellence at ECS. “Strong, positive interaction between a peer advisor and a freshman can set the stage for student success and retention.”
Although student retention isn’t the primary goal of peer advisory programs, they do provide students with a sense of comfort and belonging that typically motivates them to be more satisfied with school and more retainable. In fact, peer advisory programs were recognized in a 2002 status report produced by the Center for Retention Studies at Syracuse University as one school- and college-specific program that supports student persistence. “We found that first-year students gain more comfort with campus and the community, and upper-class students engage in leadership opportunities through participation in these programs,” says Anne L. Shelly, executive director of the Division of Student Support and Retention.
Whitman School student Whitney Tatum appreciates both perspectives. “It’s comforting to have someone who understands what you’re going through,” Tatum says. “It builds your confidence and makes you so much more willing to step outside your comfort zone. It’s also nice to know that I might have helped someone do that.”
Jessie Cordova ’05 appreciates the guidance and friendship her work-study employers provided her when she was a lonely, homesick freshman at SU. As a senior this year, Cordova helped others in her place as co-director of OrangeSeeds, a student-run leadership empowerment and mentoring program for first-year students. “I wish I had this program when I was a freshman,” Cordova says.
OrangeSeeds orients first-year students to college by providing them with resources, skills, and connections to become successful leaders and to get the most out of their experience at SU, Cordova says. By the end of the program, the “seeds” will know how to plan a campus event, which University officials to approach for different needs, and how to lead an organization. The program has three main components: biweekly leadership workshops, in which student leaders relate their leadership experiences to seeds; peer mentoring, which pairs each of the seeds with a student leader-mentor; and “The Big Event,” a community service project held April 16. Under the seeds’ direction, more than 150 volunteers landscaped, collected litter, and visited schools and nursing homes. “The Big Event took strategic planning and the effort of a lot of people,” says Sharon Clott ’07, director of OrangeSeeds training and operations. “OrangeSeeds shows these students that, as a freshman, you can make a difference.”
Travis Mason ’06, co-director of OrangeSeeds and president of the Student Association, got the idea for OrangeSeeds after learning of a similar program at Texas A&M University. “It was extremely important for me to bring OrangeSeeds to SU to provide leadership opportunities for students and to help them get acquainted with campus,” Mason says. After obtaining administrative approval, Mason and Cordova planned the program throughout spring and summer 2004, and launched the initiative last fall for 22 freshman seeds.
Student mentors meet with their seeds at least once a week, attending lectures or studying together, or sharing meals and exploring the city. Throughout the year they participate in such activities as volunteering in a soup kitchen or helping with a park cleanup. OrangeSeed Mary Gallagher ’08 joined the program to learn about SU and to meet people. “It’s great to have this opportunity to get to know SU and ourselves better,” she says.
In the future, OrangeSeeds (students.syr.edu/orientation/orangeseeds/orangeseeds.html) intends to develop an alumni-mentoring program in which alumni will work with seeds to help them define and reach their career goals. The program directors hope today’s seeds will be tomorrow’s leaders. “We expect these students to be the future presidents, vice presidents, and student organization directors,” Clott says. They also hope the seeds will learn that being a leader requires more than holding a position or title, Mason says. “It’s about being an agent of change.”