ATLANTA — The past months have brought unexpected change to Georgia State University, and the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies is no exception. Faculty adjusted quickly in developing innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a new peer-to-peer counseling program designed to meet students’ needs as they transitioned to learning from a distance.
The program’s pilot test launched on April 13, less than two weeks after Georgia State University’s announcement confirming campus-wide distance learning would continue through the summer semester.
Six students who had staffed the Dean’s Office as graduate assistants and interns were trained as peer counselors. Their charge was to connect with Andrew Young School students who seemed disengaged from their online classes and help them address barriers to academic success in this new medium. Spearheading the project were Cynthia Searcy, associate dean for academic innovation and strategy, and Jan Ivery, assistant dean for academic programs.
To start, the team sent outreach emails to 205 students to Georgia State University’s online learning platform, iCollege. They were selected based on the date of their last login.
“It was a gentle reminder to them to check iCollege,” Ivery said. “With all classes online, they should have done it daily. But many only took in-person classes before, so it was an adjustment.”
Of the original 205 students, 97 logged in the first week that the peer counselors sent the outreach email. Almost 24 percent named barriers to their virtual learning experience in response to the first email.
“Students were getting really personal with the peer counselors,” said Ivery. “They brought up mental health concerns, coping with the pandemic, difficulties transitioning to virtual learning, and being overwhelmed with coursework, among other issues.”
The peer counselors then pointed them in the right direction to have their needs addressed fully using a list of community resources vetted by Ivery and Searcy.
Ivery has a hunch about the reason behind the students’ transparency.
“Students talk to students,” she said. “The counselors assured them that they don’t disclose personal information with their professors. Taking these interactions out of the academic counseling setting added a layer of security.”
The counselors were also required to be careful not to embody the role of personal counselor or academic adviser.
“We emphasized they should not act outside the bounds of their competency,” Ivery said. “But they could inquire about a student’s circumstances if they seemed to be struggling.”
The counselors’ training continued in weekly meetings with Ivery, who gained insights about their experiences.
“Now that we have information from the team, we can improve the training process,” she said. “And we worked other changes into the summer, like hiring one student for continuity and ease of communication, and one with a human and social services background. This pairing is excellent practice for our masters’ students in fields like social work, and they are well-suited for the job.”
Ivery sees peer counseling, in the long-term, supporting the Andrew Young School’s learning infrastructure.
“Whatever learning looks like in the fall, we may look for ways to incorporate peer counseling,” she said. “We had good feedback from the pilot. Even when they didn’t need further support, students seemed to appreciate our concern.”