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From the College of Natural Sciences
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Hundreds of students a year are now trained to help their fellow students thrive in the classroom, in the laboratory, at the advising and career services offices, and in small academic communities like TIP and the Emerging Scholars Program.
Students at a Peer Leader Academy training conference in August.

When Taylor Ratliff applied to be a calculus tutor for first-year students, his motives were largely self-interested, and short-term. He wanted to learn calculus better, pad his resume and earn a decent wage.

He got the job, and it was all of those things. Unexpectedly, it was also a life-changing experience. Nineteen of the 20 students whom he helped tutor went on to earn A’s in the course. Ratliff enjoyed the experience so much that he’s gone on to work as a tutor or learning assistant nearly every semester since. Simply from assisting with three semesters of physics he’s gotten an enormous boost in preparing for the GREs. He’s helped to increase the sense of community within the physics department. And his vision of what it might be like to be a physics professor, a vision he’s nurtured since high school, has expanded considerably.

“When I imagined being a professor, I thought research was what I wanted to do and teaching was something I would have to do,” says Ratliff, who’s applying to doctoral programs in physics for the fall of 2011. “The teaching obligation didn't appeal to me at all until I got my hands dirty as an undergraduate learning assistant. I discovered, hey, I really enjoy this. Now I look forward to teaching and research.”

What’s particularly exceptional about Ratliff’s experience is that, thanks to the college’s commitment to turning students into leaders, his experience is becoming less and less exceptional. What began more than a decade ago, as a small peer mentoring program for students, has grown into the full-fledged Peer Leader Academy. Hundreds of students a year are now trained to help their fellow students thrive in the classroom, in the laboratory, at the advising and career services offices, and in small academic communities like TIP and the Emerging Scholars Program. They’re getting a national certification from the college’s Peer Leader Academy. They’re getting paid a good wage. They’re bringing departments closer together. And, perhaps most significantly, they’re learning what it means to be an adult.

“These students grow up so much as a result of taking on this kind of responsibility,” says David Laude, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “We take them and we say, ‘Alright, you're in charge. You've got these six students. Make sure they do a good job.’ I have about 20 students who are undergraduate mentors and teaching assistants for my research methods and my chemistry classes, and it’s extraordinary how serious they are about that responsibility. And when they graduate from here, they’ve grown enormously as people, because they said, 'Those were my six students that I took care of.’ If one of their students does badly, the mentors really feel it. That's a level of commitment and responsibility that I just don't think you see many places demanding of undergraduates.”

Taylor Ratliff at one of the physics department's weekly "midnight cram sessions," which are staffed by undergraduate learning assistants. He's drinking coffee from a beaker. The molecule on his shirt, incidentally, is a caffeine molecule.

In order to obtain these positions, students have to do two things. They apply directly to the individual programs or courses that are advertising positions. And, if they’re hired, they commit to a minimum of 15 hours of training with the Peer Leader Academy (PLA) on topics like time management, goal setting, group dynamics, cultural competency and conflict resolution. The concrete goal is to prepare them for the kinds of challenges and problems they might face while working with students. The deeper goal is to help them become the kind of people who can serve as anchors for others.

“One of the things we know about why students drop out, for instance, is that it’s not always the case they can't handle the workload,” says Jennifer Smith, coordinator of the PLA. “Students leave because they feel no one would miss them. They stay, even when they’re struggling, because they’ve made connections, because they’ve found a place of belonging, a small community. And I think peer leaders have the ability to make UT home for students from all walks of life.”

For Ratliff, who’s currently assisting in Sacha Kopp’s Introduction to Modern Physics course, being a peer leader has turned into a kind of multi-modal existence. He leads open tutoring sessions four hours a week, during which he conducts a kind of mini-seminar, moving back and forth between explaining concepts and encouraging students to hash them out with each other in small groups. Three hours a week he holds office hours, when students can come to him for individual help. Three hours are class time, during which he learns (or re-learns) the basic material. And an hour a week is spent strategizing with Kopp and the other learning assistants.

Outside of those dedicated hours, he says, it’s become impossible to separate his experience as a tutor from his experience as an engaged student in the physics department. He estimates that 50 or 60 physics majors, out of a total of 250 majors in the department, have had him as a tutor, and he gets a glow from simply walking around the department, always running into students he’s helped.

“Part of what makes peer learning so effective,” says Ratliff, “is that students don't necessarily view us as traditional teachers. Rather, they can approach learning assistants like they would a friend who has recently taken the course and who has the time set aside to help them."

That kind of virtuous cycle, from new students to veteran students, from classmates to friends, in and out of the classroom, weaving together a fabric of community, goes to the heart of what the peer leader program is meant to accomplish. It also emanates out, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways, to the benefit of the College of Natural Sciences.

“The payback to us has been staggering,” says Laude. “The loyalty these students feel to the college, from taking on leadership roles within it, is something we’ve never had before. At graduation this year there will be hundreds of students walking across the stage saying, yes, I have worked for this college. I’ve had a job I’m proud of. I’ve made sure that my students were successful.”
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Saturday, 18 September 2021

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