Transitioning from high school to college can be challenging under the best of circumstances. But for many first-year students, beginning college during a pandemic added an unusual aspect to the adjustment.
To support students with their transition, Penn State Brandywine offered a new series of student-to-student panel discussions this fall. Titled "Survive and Thrive at Brandywine: Conversations with Peer Leaders," the six forums included topics such as how to balance school, work and friends during remote learning; how college differs from high school; what to do when things don’t go right; tips and tricks for midterms; making connections and dealing with end-of-semester stress.
More than 110 students attended at least one discussion, with each session drawing up to 50 attendees plus two to four panelists. Although targeted to first-year students, the program was open to all Brandywine students.
The series was the idea of James Berkey, assistant professor of English and director of the campus writing studio, and Christine Brown, associate teaching professor and coordinator of the campus learning center.
After learning about virtual forums held at Penn State Berks, “it got us thinking we should do something like this about transitioning to the first semester and what that's like,” Berkey said. “Chris and I talked about how we could make this work with peer mentors, and as a way to really help students make that transition to their first year of college.”
Helping students connect with each other was another motivation, Brown said. “When we would talk in the summer, we asked ‘How are we going to build community among our students when some are on campus, but many are remote?’ So a lot of the ideas came from that as well.”
Berkey and Brown both felt Keiaisha Jackson, a senior psychology major, would be an effective moderator. Jackson has been very active on campus as a lion ambassador, peer mentor and member of student government and numerous clubs. Together, the three developed a list of topics. Jackson developed the discussion questions and reached out to other students to serve as panelists, drawing from student government, clubs, residence life, orientation leaders and peer mentors.
“We really created a space for students to come together and hear from other students who've been where they are, but not necessarily living through the exact same circumstances as first-year students,” Jackson said. “We're all going through this pandemic together as students. But I feel like first-year students missed out on a lot of opportunities to connect with each other and to really feel a part of the campus life.”
“We had very candid and open discussions and I think we really saw that first-year students are craving more connection and more opportunities to voice how they're feeling about all of this,” she added. “A lot of students were saying they really appreciated just being able to listen to the panel.”
Jemimah Mwaba, a senior business major who is a resident assistant, lion ambassador and also involved with several clubs, served as a panelist for two of the sessions.
“It was cool to talk about student life and give tips,” Mwaba said. “And it's really cool to hear that from students who are also going through the same thing. I was really surprised at just how happy the students were to be participating and how engaged they were. It’s such a wonderful experience to know you are having an impact on them.”
Berkey and Brown felt the program achieved its goals: fostering connections and building community for students, giving peer leaders another way to use and share their skills, providing a support system for students, and sharing tips on coping strategies such as time management and stress management. They hope to continue the program in future semesters.
“It exceeded my expectations,” Brown said. “It turned into an uplifting, hopeful event. Every time, I would leave with a smile on my face. Just to hear the students take ownership themselves and learn from each other, it was such a nice thing. I think our new students received the messages so much better because they were coming from student to student.”
“It exceeded expectations not only in terms of the numbers of students who showed up, but just the energy in the Zoom room and the level of engagement,” Berkey said, adding that the series could perhaps be more formally incorporated into the first-year experience on campus. “It's a nice way of tapping student leaders to help acclimate new students to the campus.”
For Jackson, who is graduating on Dec. 19, her experience moderating the panels was a memorable one.
“This has been one of my favorite things to do of all the leadership positions I've held,” Jackson said. “And I want to give credit where it's due, with respect to Dr. Berkey and Dr. Brown coming up with this idea and helping me moderate. It’s definitely something that should continue.”