January 26, 2012
Offering Support, Guidance, Sense of Community, Peer Advisors Gain Personal Enrichment
“In a large department like Communication (app. 800 majors), it’s especially important to ensure that students feel well-oriented and receive the support they need to feel both challenged and comfortable,” says Professor Lynn Phillips, chief undergraduate advisor and founder of the Department of Communication Peer Advising Program. “It’s also important to offer upper-level students opportunities to develop a professional repertoire for life beyond college.”
“Our Peer Advising Program is designed to serve both the needs of advisees and the peer advisors themselves,” Phillips explains. “This program sits in contrast to most others, which view peer advisors (PAs) as student workers and offer relatively narrow training in academic regulations and advising skills. I conceptualize PAs as developing scholar-practitioners or service learners. Our program offers a rich educational experience tied to the major and fosters their own academic and professional development as they enhance their peers’ intellectual experiences.”
As one component of a larger, multilayered departmental advising program with several interlocking components, envisioned and designed by Phillips, the Communication Peer Advising Program is itself multidimensional. Launched in 2010, it has received outstanding evaluations from advisees and strong faculty support. Other campus departments are using it as a model and, following presentations of the program at several conferences, other universities have consulted with Phillips to develop their own programs.
Upper-level communication majors, well trained in regulations, advising and helping skills, and student development, serve as PAs. “PAs welcome and offer support and encouragement to first-year and transfer Comm majors and help foster departmental community,” says Phillips. “They contact new students before their arrival on campus, and keep in touch with them throughout their first year, reminding them of important deadlines, coordinating study breaks, and offering help with procedures such as registration and add/drop. Each PA is assigned approximately 14 new students, so they get to know one another well. This really helps shrink the department’s perceived size.”
PAs also help all Communication majors make effective decisions related to their courses of study and requirements. “They also offer information about internships, study abroad, research possibilities, Five College courses, and service opportunities, and they bring an invaluable student perspective,” says Phillips. “PAs connect to other university resources too, including counseling, tutoring, and personal, cultural and academic support services. They have regular drop-in office hours in the Comm Undergraduate Advising Office in 411 Machmer. We encourage all Comm majors to meet with a PA at least once a semester.”
PAs’ work goes well beyond the confines of the Machmer office. “It is important for students to feel like they belong to a community and that higher education is more than a scheduled and intensive institution,” says Kailey Anarino ’13. “Building a feeling of support and sense of belonging allows students to reach their potential in a comfortable environment. Each of us chooses to participate in and add to an ongoing service project that helps build a sense of community within the Comm Department,” Anarino explains.
“For example, PAs founded the Comm Student Action Forum for students who wish to be more involved with social justice issues on campus and in the surrounding community. Coordinating get-togethers like Comm Movie Night [a monthly multicultural film series with faculty facilitated discussions] and a student/alumni career event also bring department members together in meaningful ways.” Anarino’s service project is managing the Comm Peer Advisor blog. This informal undergraduate website provides critical information about departmental policies and procedures, admissions requirements, faculty contacts, and FAQs, as well as PAs’ insights on academic and student life. “I edit and format all of the posts too,” Anarino notes.
PAs also produce Comm Connection, a weekly e-newsletter highlighting events, internship and career opportunities, upcoming deadlines, scholarships, and other resources for majors and prospective majors. “It’s been a huge hit with our students,” says Phillips. “Designed and administered by PA Miyagi Jacobs ’12, it consolidates otherwise scattered information and delivers it in a clear and attractive format."
The Peer Advising Program offers close mentoring and skill development to the PAs themselves through its cornerstone Peer Advising and Leadership Seminar. About a dozen PAs work closely with Phillips, receiving intensive pre-service training and participating in the two-semester, 300-level seminar. The course immerses students in readings and in-depth discussions of issues such as multiculturalism, critical pedagogy, stereotype threat, social perception and attribution, interpersonal communication, cultural capital and the hidden curriculum, and early adult development. PAs examine how these play out in college students’ diverse experiences.
“PAs learn and practice helping, public speaking, interpersonal communication and leadership skills in a supportive environment,” says Phillips. “It’s a great opportunity for advanced students to develop confidence and career skills, work as a team member, and make lasting contributions to the department and the university.”
“Being a PA has definitely benefitted my own intellectual and personal progress,” says Anarino. “Lynn Phillips works hard to guide us. Her words of wisdom and support continuously help us reach our advising and personal goals. Reaching out to students who feel lost and creating community is amazingly heartwarming.
“These inspirational feelings, as well as the service learning we take from this program—including but not limited to event coordination and public speaking—are preparing me for my future,” Anarino notes. “Participation in the program has heightened my interest in a nonprofit public relations career, possibly at a university or a hospital. So far though, the best part of being a PA has been our collective work. Spreading these messages and working hard toward our group goals have been very enriching.”