Gonzaga’s core curriculum has seen many updates in the past few years, bringing new ideas to help students become well-rounded critical thinkers. The introduction of the peer educator position has created a way for first-year students to grow, both intellectually and personally. 

The position began with Scott Starbuck, a lecturer in religious studies and chair of the First Year Seminar Core Curriculum Committee, and Molly Kretchmar-Hendricks, the director of the University Core, when they attended a conference run by the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience.

At the conference, they learned how the peer educator position could be beneficial for students. After that, Starbuck said they “teamed up” with Kelly Alvarado-Young, director of First Year Experience Programs, and Matt Lamsma, dean of student engagement, to introduce the peer educator role into the First Year Experience program. 

“The peer educator program is a partnership between the University Core and First Year Experience programs,” Starbuck said. “Peer educators serve as co-learners in a First Year Seminar course and act as role models for deep learning. By actively engaging with course content, the peer educator encourages the intellectual engagement of all students.”

According to Starbuck, peer educators are required to:

  • Attend all sessions of the FYS class, which facilitates co-learning by engaging in course content. However, peer educators are not tested or required to turn in assignments, but are expected to do course readings, see films and other class activities.
  • Act as a bridge between the instructor and students, establishing a positive working relationship with faculty, first-year students and fellow peer educators.
  • Assist in developing the ethos of the classroom through group-building exercises and facilitating class discussions.
  • Appropriately communicate with students outside of class.
  • Provide feedback to the instructor.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of university resources and serve as a referral point for first-year students when necessary.
  • Serve as role models for academic, co-curricular and leadership behaviors.
  • When looking for candidates, Starbuck said peer educators should be active listeners, set appropriate boundaries, have emotional intelligence and good communication, as well as problem-solving skills. 

The position is a direct representation of GU’s mission, bringing seasoned students and newer students together for a heightened educational experience, Starbuck said. 

“In particular, peer educators model that GU is an exemplary learning community that educates students for lives of leadership and service for the common good,” Starbuck said. “As they do this, they help to cultivate, in first-year students, the capacities and dispositions for reflective and critical thought, the beginning of lifelong learning, spiritual growth, ethical discernment, creativity and innovation.” 

Maddie Miller is a first-year student majoring in sports management and has two peer educators. Miller said she got to know them both inside and outside of the classroom. Before they became her peer educators, they were her orientation leaders. 

“My favorite thing about having peer educators in a learning environment was being able to go and talk with them about any questions or clarifications I had about anything, whether it was about class or GU in general,” Miller said. 

Starbuck said peer educators are not teaching assistants and are not focusing on coursework but instead, supporting students through their “transitions into college academia.”

“Peer educators help students ask questions, think critically and find a sense of belonging on campus,” Starbuck said.

“Peer educators can model a comfortableness as a co-learner that sometimes is difficult for freshmen to live into immediately,” Starbuck said. “So, as mentors, the students can key off of them and notice how they deal with, for example, ambiguity.”

A first-year student can have one to two peer educators. In Miller’s case, she had two students that were available to help her through her first year at GU. Miller said her peer educators helped her learn the “ins and outs” of GU and she enjoyed seeing familiar faces around campus. 

“They became a leader and a friend to me; I know that if I ever needed anything, they would be there to help,” Miller said. “My peer educators helped me become more comfortable in the classroom and feel more welcomed at GU.”

The Peer Educator program combines new GU students with those that have experienced college and its ups and downs, giving attention to the reality of academic and personal hardship. It gives first-year students a secondary support system that can help create a more comfortable transition into the first year of college. 

Jordan Tolbert is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @jordanvtolbert.

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