UMass Lowell students helping students: peer tutors, advisors are there

Dana Ibrahim knows what students are going through right now. 

As a senior double-majoring in peace and conflict studies and political science, she is taking her courses remotely on Zoom this fall while wondering when the COVID-19 pandemic will ever end.

It’s a difficult time, but Ibrahim says she always feels better after connecting virtually with fellow students through her work as a peer tutor.

“I’m struggling, but they’re struggling too,” says Ibrahim, who is available for online tutoring two to three hours a day, four days a week. “When you see everybody is with you — we’re all in this together, trying to do our best — it makes it possible for all of us to succeed.”

Ibrahim is one of around 80 undergraduate students working as peer tutors this fall through the Centers for Learning, Advising and Student Success (CLASS). They offer free tutoring in nearly 130 courses across all six colleges, as well as for the The Writing Center.

Another 10 students are working remotely as peer advisors under the direction of the College-Based Advising program. Peer advisors are available on Zoom, Monday through Friday, to answer questions that students may have about the nuts and bolts of academics, like how to register for classes, find a form online or navigate the Student Information System (SiS).

For peer tutors and advisors, it’s a chance to help their fellow River Hawks while polishing their people skills and earning some extra money.

“Having a role that allows you to help others is one of the most rewarding things you can do,” Dean of Academic Services Kerry Donohoe told peer tutors during the first of their four virtual training sessions this fall.  

Donohoe, who worked as a tutor as an undergraduate psychology major at UML, says peer tutors gain “greater mastery” of the subjects they’re explaining — while also building valuable career skills.

“Learning to explain and communicate complex ideas to others is going to serve you well in whatever profession you go into,” she told the tutors.

‘So Much Better This Fall’

Before the pandemic, all peer tutoring and advising was provided in person on campus. But having seen the benefits of offering online services since the campus shutdown in March, leaders of both programs say they will continue with virtual options — in addition to face-to-face meetings — once the pandemic is over.

“Our students are working and doing so many different things, and I think we’ve proven that, whatever their situation, we can provide the support they need,” says Executive Director of Academic Services and Special Projects Sheila Riley-Callahan, who notes that UML has maintained close to the same level of tutoring during the pandemic. In 2018-19, students used CLASS services nearly 138,000 times. 

Riley-Callahan applauded the work of Assoc. Director of Academic Services Operations David Driscoll and tutoring coordinators Todd Borchers and Judith Frank for quickly transitioning the program online last spring.

New peer tutors receive 10 hours of training and are certified by the College Reading and Learning Association. They must have earned at least a B plus in the course they tutor, receive a recommendation from the professor and have a minimum 3.0 GPA.

Giuseppe Granara, a senior civil and environmental engineering major from Cagliari, Italy, is tutoring four courses this semester: Statics, Strength of Materials, Fluid Dynamics and Statistics. A member of the UML men’s soccer team, Granara became interested in tutoring after transferring from Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma following his freshman year.

“I’ve always been pretty good in school, and when I was a sophomore, a lot of the freshmen on the team were asking me for help,” says Granara, who applied to become a tutor at the suggestion of one of his teammates.

Now in his fourth semester of tutoring, Granara is available for two hours in the morning and three hours in the evening on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“It’s good to refresh some topics that I did back in the day,” he says. “The more you do it, the better you get at it.”

While Granara prefers working in person with students at the Tutoring Center, where he can draw on whiteboards and get a better read on facial expressions, he’s glad he can still help on Zoom.

Ibrahim, whose family moved to the United States as refugees from Iraq in 2010, is tutoring for a half-dozen political science and Arabic language courses this fall. She says she tries to make the sessions, which can be one-on-one or for as many as six students, as personal as possible.

“In the spring, students were more unsure and nervous,” she says. “It’s so much better this fall. Now, people are getting used to asking for help, even though it’s not in person.”

Ibrahim, who began tutoring last fall, says the experience helped her land a part-time job as an Arabic interpreter at the International Institute of Lowell. It has also opened her eyes to a new career possibility.

“Since I’ve started tutoring, I have realized that I actually like teaching,” she says. “I had never thought about getting my doctorate degree and becoming a professor someday, but it’s interesting to consider.”

Teaching Students to Fish

Susan O’Neill ’96 ’19 started the peer advising program in 2018 as a project for her Master of Education degree, with three work-study students providing drop-in services at tables in the University Crossing lobby.

She says Zoom has proven to be an ideal platform for peer advising, which is available for drop-in sessions Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Friday from noon to 5 p.m.  

“A lot of times when students have questions, they’re in their rooms at night,” says O’Neill, who is also the College-Based Advising coordinator for the Kennedy College of Sciences. “Having an option to hop online and ask a question right on the spot from where they are is better than waiting for an advising appointment.”

Peer advisors, who must be work-study students, receive around six hours of training from O’Neill and the team leader — senior public health major Kiran Darai — based on National Association of Academic Advising guidelines.

The idea, O’Neill says, is for peer advisors to supplement the support provided by College-Based Advising and professional advisors through CLASS by passing along to newer students the tips and tricks they’ve learned about navigating systems and finding resources.

“We’re trying to teach students how to fish, so they can get the answer themselves next time,” she says. 

Darai, a Somerville, Mass., native and one of the original three peer advisors, says that helping students online over Zoom is more convenient for both the advisors and the advisees. 

“It feels great to help people who need assistance,” he says, “and to feel like I'm doing a good job.”