Portland State University’s undergraduate general education program is housed in the University Studies (UNST) department. As an Undergraduate Peer Mentor with the University Studies Peer Mentor Program, I am responsible for disseminating information to a class of incoming freshmen. The cluster of classes our freshmen participate in are called Freshmen Inquiry, or FRINQ. As their Peer Mentor, I assist students in finding their footing in college life, demystifying the expectations of the university, engaging their learning process, and supporting their holistic success a new college students.
The peculiar nature of FRINQ is structured so that the students and me are together in this yearlong educational growth process.
The four University Studies department goals are as follows:
Communication: Students will enhance their capacity to communicate in various ways—writing, graphics, numeracy, and other visual and oral means—to collaborate effectively with others in group work, and to be competent in appropriate communication technologies.
Inquiry and Critical Thinking: Students will learn various modes of inquiry through interdisciplinary curricula—problem-posing, investigating, conceptualizing—in order to become active, self-motivated, and empowered learners.
Diversity of Human Experience: Students will enhance their appreciation for and understanding of the rich complexity of the human experience through the study of differences in ethnic and cultural perspectives, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.
Ethics and Social Responsibility: Students will expand their understanding of the impact and value of individuals and their choices on society, both intellectually and socially, through group projects and collaboration in learning communities.
The way general education classes have been established at Portland State University (PSU), requites all incoming freshmen to attend one course together that they commit to for their first year at PSU; attending class fall, winter, and spring terms as a cohort. I am their Peer Mentor for the entire academic year.
Fall term’s mentor sessions gave us the opportunity to spend much of our time together familiarizing students with college life. About 76% of my students had just graduated high school in June of 2014, according to an assessment that the students participated in at the beginning of fall term; a fact that presented me with a peculiar set of issues to navigate with my cohort of students. Some were easier to manage than others. It took the entirety of fall term for them to stop asking me if they could go to the bathroom.
High school conditions young people to either fall in line or expect punishment – there isn’t much room for anything else. The standardization of education and its demands on students to acquiesce to rigid norms was so ingrained in them that for the first few weeks of fall term they would awkwardly stand around with their backpacks on, seemingly waiting for the bell to ring, until I verbally dismissed them. It was mind boggling to me that I would have to actually verbally encourage them to leave class. As a seasoned college student I’m accustomed to leaving class when I need to and taking initiative to have my needs met both in and out of the classroom. In hindsight, I think it would’ve been beneficial to have conversations with the students about identifying ways in which they can have more ownership over their education.
One of my favorite things about the University Studies (UNST) Peer Mentor Program at PSU is the opportunity to build relationships with students, staff, and faculty in the program. Though particularly with the students, because of the nature of the classroom environment, small class size in mentor sessions, and the fact that we’re together all year. This creates the right set of circumstances for relationship building. More often than not this looks like students sending me emails asking questions they don’t feel comfortable posing in class; occasionally, one-on-one conversations center on complex and sensitive personal experiences. In these moments, it became my responsibility to help students problem-solve and identify campus resources that would support their holistic success.
Winter term bought our cohort a whole new set of challenges. One of my personal challenges as a Peer Mentor has been teaching to diverse learners. Too often the way that scholarly information is disseminated in the “traditional way” – from a singular professor who is the authority, to students who are assumed to hold no previous knowledge – is not always an effective teaching and learning model. I also found that there wasn’t enough time, in our ten-week terms, 50 minute mentor sessions, and structured classes, to spend the amount of time I would have liked to engage students in evaluating their learning processes and adapting to the needs of the group.
Our class, Ways of Knowing, changes in both theme and professor each term. We began with Natural Sciences, moved into Social Sciences, and will be focused on Humanities in the spring. None of the other Freshman Inquiry classes are structured in this way. Helping the students go from a Natural Sciences discipline of producing knowledge and assessing human behavior and norms, and then moving into a Social Sciences perspective was difficult at times.
Many of the students in this cohort are STEM majors, or have a strong sense of Natural Science-based knowledge; causing them to struggle a bit to accept some of the main tenants of knowledge production and evaluation of human experience in the Social Sciences. Me being in the Humanities discipline, I often learned right along with the students these last two terms. However, this was also a bit of a difficult task for me because there was occasionally an expectation placed on me from the students that I would have a comprehensive understanding of the course material each term. I have to say, it’s a lofty expectation for any undergraduate student to be an expert in both the Natural and Social Sciences, as well as the Humanities. When this came up during mentor sessions I would be honest with the students, letting them know that I am learning the course material at the same time as they are; some folks were appeased by this answer, while, still, others wanted more from me. Though, I think overall, this offered the students a concrete example of how learning happens in a classroom, how we engage with course material and each other.