Thursday, November 19, 2009

Power to the Peers!

The ring of the header above has to reveal that I am a child of the 60’s with its evocation of “power to the people.” I confess, I am. That was the period in which I acquired my idealism which drives me still. I was inspired by President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the early feminist thinkers and leaders, the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, the anti-war movement, in which I participated after I completed my tour of military service, honorably and with gratitude, the subject of another blog. Anyway, to the point of this blog: students have always had power.

Decades of good research has determined that the single greatest influence on college student decision making during the college years, is the influence of other students. This is one of those things like the working in college phenomena. We can’t beat it. Why not join it? This is to say, once you recognize the enormous influence of students on students, the logical conclusion should be we need to try to influence this by putting the students we want to influence other students into positions of influence to do just that.

Inspired by uses of “peer mentors” in first-year seminars that I saw at such places as Baldwin-Wallace College (OH) and Kean University of New Jersey, I decided in 1991, when I was the Executive Director of University 101 at the University of South Carolina, to personally be the first 101 instructor to use a “peer mentor” as a test case. It was a wonderful experience. I am indebted to my peer leader, Ms. Lisa Huttinger, for giving me and my students such a wonderful experience. And then I became even more indebted to my Co-director of University 101, Professor Dan Berman for picking up the ball and creating our powerful peer leader program at USC. Today, over 175 sections of the course annually have a peer leader.

I say “even more indebted” because my colleague, Dan Berman, had been a sophomore at Marietta College in 1961, when I was a floundering first-year student also at Marietta. And it was his spontaneous and generous reaching out to influence me, by showing me how to take lecture notes, and select really engaging professors, that I attribute more than anything else to getting me off academic probation. I often think were it not for my own “peer leader” I would never have been able to stay in college, and then go on to help other college students. Power to the peers!

-John N. Gardner

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