Peer Counseling is Experiential Education
Sanaa Mylan QC’13 and Jim Stellar
Sanaa and I met in 2009 when she was a freshman and I was a newly arrived Provost at Queens. I had taken a faculty apartment in the new residence hall where she also lived and over that year through “pizza with the provost” and other activities she helped me see the undergraduate academic programs we were putting on through the eyes of a new student and those of her peers in that residence hall. We stayed in touch over the years and talked over many things including a remarkable program of Peer Support program (often called Peer Counseling) at Queens College where students help other students with academic advising and personal support.
Sanaa, to start us off, can you please describe the program and your involvement.
Thanks Jim, the Peer Counseling program trains Undergraduate students in both academic and personal topics to equip them for one on one counseling with their peers. The program is unique because it offers students a chance to learn the college graduation requirements in depth, to meet directors of the major departments and offices on campus, and to be knowledgeable in the resources that are available at Queens. I was a Peer Counselor in the spring of 2011 to the fall of 2012.
Thank you. Can you now describe what happened to you as you went through the program as a peer counselor?
When I applied to the program, I was a sophomore. I knew many of the Peers at the time because I lived and worked on campus and had heard about how much the program helped them learn about and develop themselves. Peer counseling appealed to me because I could meet people and get involved with campus life. I also had not yet declared a major and I thought that Counseling would be a good way to learn communication skills that would be helpful in any career I choose!
The Peer Counseling program requires students to complete an application, and go through two interviews. Once accepted into the cohort of only about 20 students, the Peers make a one-year commitment to the program. They learn about the college policies in terms of grade appeals, course offerings, financial aid, career development and much more. The Peers are educated on how to address emotional concerns, like depression and suicide, or social concerns, like transitioning into college, with a client, taught by faculty members that work in the college Counseling and Resource Center. The biggest part of the program is a student leader retreat they do each semester, Full Moon, the name of the resort. For one weekend, about 60 undergraduate students in total and some very courageous faculty go to Upstate New York, for an educational training weekend.
Full Moon is the essence of the program. For three days, the Peers focus on social interactions, that means no internet and cell phones. We opened up to each other about the real, deep and heartbreaking struggles, happening in our lives. The first impressions we had of our classmates tended to fall away, and we realized that unconsciously, we judge people by their actions rather than their intentions. I learned how beneficial it is to be in an environment that is open and honest. We had a place where we could drop our defenses, communicate our hurts and joys, and empathize with a person you originally thought you could never relate. We had conversations and uninterrupted by daily pressures and technology. We found that across cultures, religions, socioeconomic status and races we could relate to one another.
It would take me too long to tell all the details of the Retreat Itinerary, but the point is that the courses in Peer Counseling taught me practical skills and made me more resourceful on campus. It helped me to learn firsthand what a clinic experience would be like, how to communicate my feelings and to help someone process their own experiences, through talk therapy.
How did you apply those lessons to your work as a Peer Counselor? Do not give away any secrets here of interaction with students, but talk about how you grew.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, so as a current graduate student in the Mental Health Counseling program I can speak to the impact that Peer counseling made in my life.
Being a Peer taught me how to listen to others and be curious about someone’s life story. I learned to connect with my peers, friends and family in a deeper way. That curiosity helped me to be a more attentive, which helps to create a trusting and honest environment in a session. This retreat is an example of what it takes to stop prejudice and discrimination. In even just a few undergraduate students, it at least helped us see the benefit of taking time to get to know people before judging them.
In the start of graduate school, I was more comfortable in mock sessions in classes. I was less anxious than my peers were and was able to probe for more information with a client. I could ask questions to get more information about an area in the client’s life and not be distracted because of thinking about what to say next. Although, there are many more skills I need to learn Peer Counseling gave me confidence I needed in session. At my internship, I feel comfortable building rapport with the client because I have had so much practice learning what to look for. It is second nature to me to notice a client’s non-verbal communication and important key words as the client speaks. These skills would not be as developed without my experience and training in the Peer Support program, which I am so grateful for!
We both think that this program illustrates a key aspect of experiential education in being substantial and authentic even if the entire program occurs on campus, except for the retreat, and even if it serves the purposes of helping other students. Students in the Peer Counseling program do real work that requires real training and they do it over a long period of time. Even if they are not able to make the definitive diagnosis or sign a student into a course, they deal with the same counseling issues and make important recommendations. We also note that the basic work of Peer Counseling itself involves the mammalian brain circuits (after Paul McLean) and unconscious decision-making (as discussed in books by David Eagleman and Daniel Kahneman) that we see as a hallmark of learning from experience outside the classroom. Put a student face to face with another student as a client for such counseling and it is all there. Finally, the opportunity to be trained and to reflect on what happened, which occurs in the program, is key so that experience of the activity can be connected back with academic and career development processes like going to graduate school in mental health counseling.