When faculty at Penn State Brandywine announced the 2019 launch of a new peer mentorship initiative program, they knew that the students involved would need excellent training. They rose to the occasion by designing a special course that teaches students to be confident, capable peer assistants and leaders.
The course, a 300-level class called The Education of the Peer Assistant, will be a required prerequisite for all students who wish to qualify for the new Peer Assistant and Leader (PAL) program, a unique student-to-student mentorship system.
“It will be similar to the process that our students go through in a resident assistant (RA) course,” said Chris Brown, associate teaching professor of literacy and education and American studies at Brandywine.
Brown, who will teach the class, is working collaboratively with two Brandywine PAL co-founders: Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology Joshua Marquit and Clinical Counselor Jennifer Toadvine. All three have great hopes for the course—even beyond PAL.
“Initially, this course will be for students in the peer mentoring program, but our vision beyond that is to make this a feeder for other student leadership roles on campus,” said Marquit.
The course will teach future PAL participants how to effectively support an array of incoming Penn State students—especially first-generation college students, who often struggle to navigate the University systems.
“We have found that some messages are better when they come from peers, not faculty or staff,” Brown said. “A PAL won’t be equipped to teach chemistry, for example, but they will be able to support students who are overwhelmed by problems in their classes or off-campus life.”
According to Toadvine, incoming students face a variety of challenges in and outside the classroom and often are hesitant to disclose those issues to a staff member or course instructor. PAL was designed, in part, to address that hesitancy.
“Students are really scared about not knowing everything, not being perfect,” she said. “They don’t want to be seen as incapable—so it’s often easier to retreat than confront the challenge. That’s where PAL can help. We can have those conversations, and a peer support can be the person to open that dialogue about the challenge.”
Since the role of a PAL will be focused on addressing real-life challenges, Brown’s course will emphasize hands-on, activity-based learning.
“It will be balanced with theory and research, of course, but the focus will be on active studentship,” said Brown. “There will be lots of role-playing, personal journaling, tapping into strengths and helping the student leaders better understand themselves first.”
“We also plan to incorporate out-of-class learning in real life situations,” Marquit said. “We want the students to go do things in the community and report on them, to actually engage in service and have experiences that will teach diversity and mindfulness in real time.”
As Brown, Marquit and Toadvine prepare to teach the course for the first time in 2019—and select their first PAL group—they look forward to sparking positive change on campus.
“I’m excited by the positivity of it,” said Brown. “We’re going to do something about a serious need we have noticed on campus—and I know how much it’s going to develop the PALs themselves along the way.”
“Something has become abundantly clear to me, and that is that higher ed is not just about teaching content,” said Marquit. “We’re trying to help create autonomous adults. That means giving them the skills to engage each other autonomously and support their peers.”