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Peer tutoring plays increasingly key role at WDT

Monica Sherman

Monica Sherman, who’s majoring in Computer-Aided Design at Western Dakota Technical College, works as a peer tutor in the Student Success Center.

When Monica Sherman helps students with their coursework at Western Dakota Technical College, she can reach them in ways that only another student can.

“It’s quick empathy from recent experience,” said Sherman, herself a student at the college, majoring in Computer-Aided Design.

Sherman is. a peer tutor – a paid position – in the college’s Student Success Center. She’s one of five peer tutors working in the center. The sort of peer-based assistance Sherman described may be especially valuable at a time when students are a bit more under stress than usual, having endured the trials of the pandemic and in search of a strong peer network.

“Just building the connection with a peer encourages them ... to reach out to another classmate” if they find themselves struggling again later, explained Whitney Bischoff, director of student success at the college.

Sherman noted a number of ways that a peer might reach students in ways more established educators may not – even though talking with faculty members also serves an important function for students. She said she might be able to sit down with another student for longer than a teacher can, and she also described a way that she can help a student reconstruct an assignment and then see new aspects of it.

“You’re re-approaching it,” Sherman said. “You’re discovering where the stuff is with them all over again.”

Peer tutoring – in writing centers and other student support organizations – has been growing in colleges and universities for years. Nowadays, though, the chance to talk with a peer about academics might be especially welcome.

“Students are a lot more anxious this ear, and that kind of started when the pandemic hit,” said Jennifer Williams-Curl, library and disability service coordinator for the college. “This year a lot of students are a little edgier, a little less patient, a little more hurried.”

So Williams-Curl makes sure to let students know about resources, from academic help to counseling.

“I tell them if they just need to vent, they’re welcome to stop by,” she added. “If they have a victory, I would really love to hear the victories, too.”

And she also encourages them to consult with their peers, too, sharing both struggles and victory stories.

Williams-Curl said most of the peer tutoring is done in-person on a walk-in basis, with some occasional virtual tutoring by appointment as well.

As a student tutoring in the Student Success Center, Sherman is part of a network of staff members at the college helping students who might encounter academic hitches, both minor and serious. Among Bischoff’s tasks is overseeing the tutors and the work they do in the Student Success Center, and Williams-Curl often visits classrooms to help students work more fruitfully.

The college also employs three student success coaches working in different academic areas.

“Their role is to help students navigate higher education,” Bischoff said of the coaches, noting the way they match students with tutors and community resources, among other functions.

And within those layers of help are the peer tutors – students who have earned “A”s in the subject they tutor and who have developed a knack for connecting with other students.

“I’ve been there,” Sherman said she tells students. And hearing that, she said, "can help them relax, and then maybe learn just a little bit better.”

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