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They’ve been there, done that—student mentors, tutors, and coaches who are eager to help newer students thrive in Skidmore’s community of scholars.

Role models for academic and extracurricular engagement, the upperclassmen tutor in the Foreign Language Resource Center, lead discussion groups in biology, coach students on their business presentations, hold office hours for math and computer-science students, offer tips as health educators, and serve as individual tutors in disciplines across the curriculum. They work under faculty guidance, honing their skills in regular meetings as well as credit-bearing courses like the English department's “Peer Tutoring Project,” taken by those who offer some 2,000 consultations each year in the Writing Center.

Charlie Samuels photo  
Peer mentor Adam Schmelkin ’12 partners with Prof. Barbara Black to get first-year students off to a strong start.  

Professors have found that experienced students can help newer ones succeed on a variety of levels, particularly in the First-Year Experience. Of this fall’s 44 on-campus Scribner Seminars, 41 used peer mentors—sophomores, juniors, and seniors who took a weekly seminar together on mentoring skills and then coordinated with individual faculty members in the classes. Each team set its own plan, which might have the mentor offering discussions on time-management and note-taking skills, reading drafts of papers, or organizing social events over pizza.

FYE program director Beau Breslin notes that when it comes to social orientation, “peer mentors are better than I am, because they struggled with the same issues one or two years before.” But many peer mentors are deeply involved in academic support as well. After all, says Breslin, they’ve been selected for their “engagement in the intellectual enterprise and passion for learning.”

For English professor Barbara Black, whose Scribner Seminar this fall was called “American Dreams,” peer mentor Adam Schmelkin ’12 was a dream come true.

“Adam is terrifically effective,” says Black. “He is a serious scholar, he is passionate about ideas, and he comes to seminar both prepared and enthusiastic.” The fact that his scholarly interests differ from hers—he’s into government and environmental studies—was a big plus in a course that skips nimbly across disciplinary boundaries.

Black was on sabbatical last spring when faculty were lining up their peer mentors, but when she returned, colleagues recommended she consider Schmelkin. “Among the many students I interviewed,” she recalls, “Adam was a standout. Our interview quickly turned into an exciting conversation about contemporary American culture and national identity.” Schmelkin agrees, “We hit it off very well.”

He hit it off well with the rest of the class too. Says Black, “All I heard in the first weeks of the semester was ‘We love Adam. We have the best peer mentor.’” Black insisted that her classroom be “an ideologically safe place that tolerates dissensus and moves beyond orthodoxies,” and she credits Schmelkin with helping to set that tone as the students worked through challenging material toward a deeper understanding of “who we are as Americans.”

Teacher and mentor worked closely as a team, meeting weekly to take stock of the seminar, discuss concerns raised by the other students, and strategize Schmelkin's mini-presentations on skills such as studying for midterms and public speaking. “I trusted the guidance he gave my students in developing their writing skills, which was a particularly important goal for the seminar,” says Black. Schmelkin saw himself as a sounding board. “I gave suggestions on how to improve their papers and substantiate their arguments,” he says. And while many of the concerns brought to him were academic, he saw himself as an important social resource as well.

“Adam always has his door open and encourages us to come at practically any hour to talk about our papers, the class, or our personal lives,” says Katherine Bennett ’13. “He is a great listener and genuinely cares about us and our well-being.” Schmelkin says his main job is “to help make my mentees’ tran­sitions to college as smooth as possible”—which is a job that will continue in the upcoming spring term in less formal settings, such as the laundry room or stairwell in the residence hall they all share.

Business professor Caroline Orr D’Abate ’93 understands peer mentoring as well as anyone. She has conducted extensive research on mentoring in academic and corporate settings and helped Skidmore clarify its FYE mentoring component.

To find a good student mentor, she says, “I look for one who has excelled in the topic but can also relate to other students, and who can be a role model for outstanding leadership, academic integrity, and rigor in the classroom.” That describes Alyssa Chrobuck ’09, peer mentor in D’Abate’s 2008 Scribner Seminar “Images of Work in Literature and the Arts.” Citing Chrobuck as “one of those students who just take charge,” D’Abate says, “she was able to do things that I as a faculty member couldn’t”—like social orientation or emotional support—“and she was such a good role model for what it means to be an engaged member of the Skidmore community.” So good, in fact, that several of her mentees followed her example and ran for student government. Melvis Langyintuo ’12 was concerned about balancing student government duties with his academic work and varsity basketball, but she gave him just the boost he needed. “She informed me that some people, like herself, do well in all aspects of life when they are constantly busy,” he recalls. “I took her advice and won the presidency, and I realized that having a lot going on at once helped me to be very focused on my major priorities.” He excelled in all endeavors and was re-elected class president for this year.

Remembering her own difficult freshman year, Chrobuck relished the chance to help new students explore Saratoga, get to know each other, and “find their place at Skidmore.” They came to her for everything from time management and essay revision to restaurant recommendations. As for her partnership with D’Abate, Chrobuck says, “We collaborated, but she also gave me a lot of independence so that I could branch out.”

The management and business department is heavily invested in student mentors and coaches, who play a significant role in MB107, the department’s challenging introductory course that’s popular among future majors and nonmajors alike. This past autumn, student coordinators like Juliet Kaye ’10, who have previously taken the course and served as coaches, organized 125 enrollees into small groups to develop formal business-plan presentations for real-life business leaders. “I believe strongly in the class and think it’s an experience all Skidmore students should have the opportunity to participate in,” says Kaye. She and MB107 faculty coordinator Tim Harper stayed in constant contact to keep everything running smoothly.

MB107’s student coaches enroll in courses taught by Laura Paul, who describes her role as the “coaches’ coach.” In roundtables and class discussion, Paul seeks to bring out important lessons that the coaches could take “both to their MB107 teams and to their future post-Skidmore positions.”

D’Abate agrees that part of “coaching the coaches” is helping them develop leadership skills they’ll need in their careers. “You need to know how to work with others and how to get things accomplished,” she explains. “MB107 is like a lab, where they’re not only learning the theory of what makes effective leadership but applying it at the same time.”

Peer mentors and tutors
in FYE and MB107 often do additional duty in private tutoring sessions and study groups coordinated by Kathy Hemingway Jones, associate director of Student Academic Services. Some 150 of these tutors were at work in the fall. High-demand subjects can vary from semester to semester, and Jones frequently reaches out to faculty for recommendations; other students approach her for tutoring jobs. “I review their transcripts,” says Jones, “and if they have the academic chops, I’ll give them an application and go to the faculty member for approval.”

Jones says students seek tutoring at all levels. “Some are earning a B and looking for the A; some might be facing their first C; and some are really outside their comfort zone—maybe a humanities major fulfilling a science requirement, or vice versa.”

“We get a lot of requests for all the sciences,” Jones notes. This fall biology professors Corey Freeman-Gallant and Pat Hilleren had five student tutors offering evening discussion sessions for students in “Biological Sciences I: Unity of Life.” Freeman-Gallant says, “These are folks that we had targeted from their prior experience in the course, students who are particularly outstanding with good people skills.” At peak times before exams, as many as 20 students at once flocked to the evening sessions.

The discussion leaders met with faculty weekly to go over class content and think through strategies for helping students. Brit Berdy ’10 had a Tuesday time slot this fall, in her second year as a discussion leader. “I took the course in my sophomore year, and I guess I demonstrated enough of an understanding that Corey thought I would be a good tutor.” Indeed, Freeman-Gallant notes that the course covers two disparate sets of concepts—in evolution and in molecular biology—and says, “It’s rare to find somebody who can master both with rigor and intuition. Brit does; she really knows what she’s doing.”

Such extra support allows faculty and discussion leaders to push students a bit, but it doesn’t reduce faculty interaction with the students. “This is all extra,” Freeman-Gallant says. “I think it helps reach more students, because there are always going to be some who are nervous about coming to a faculty member, because they don’t want to give the impression that they don’t have command of the material. There’s less of a hurdle when coming to a peer.”

As this is Berdy’s last year helping students understand natural selection, a different kind of selection is under way for her replacement. “We’re always watching,” says Freeman-Gallant, “looking for people who are engaged, who can communicate, and who are passionate about the subject. We just know it when we see it.”

For Carolyn D’Abate the selection process may be a snap: A junior who took her class two years ago recently approached her in a Saratoga coffee shop to ask about a peer mentor position. “That said more to me than anything,” D’Abate relates with a smile. “It said that she had such a good experience with a peer mentor in the past that she wants to become one herself.”

Barbara Black had her own powerful experience with a peer mentor when she was a freshman. “He represented the possibility of a better me—smarter, more mature, more interesting—a figure for what I could be,” she says. Working with him, Black recalls, she discovered “that it was OK and even cool and desirable to be both social and intellectual. I want that for my students.”