In conclusion, my research so far has uncovered that students characterize three main challenges that they face in their roles as peer advisers, which I will examine more closely in this section with examples and quotes/excerpts from my surveys and interviews.
Friends vs. Fellows
The Challenge:The conflict PAFs feel from the expectation that PAFs should not be "friends" with their students but instead should be "advisers" and how that can limit the relationships peer advisers develop with their first-year students.
Another PAF, a junior, also in her first year of PAFing, said the following: "I would prefer us to be thought of as 'friends' instead of 'advisors.' PAFs are still distant figures, whereas, there are other social communities in which students can be instilled with a greater sense of mentorship and advising from upperclassmen such as cultural organizations."
When asked what they think the purpose, role, and value of the PAF program is, several PAFs directly referred to a close, personal, meaningful, and reciprocal relationship that resembled that of friends. PAFs commonly described their roles as being "a casual friend/role model for life at Harvard" or "a sort of well-trained, knowledgeable upperclassman friend." This fits in with the discourse and existing research on peer advising as discussed in my Literature Review. PAFs acknowledge that they are unique and distinct from other advisers that their freshmen have because of the closeness in age and their greater wealth of knowledge (and direct experience) on social life. However, for many PAFs this causes conflict and is a point of uncertainty because they are not necessarily sure of what kind of behaviors constitute as being friendly versus being a friend.
All of the PAFs I interviewed or who filled out my survey showed a concern for being the best possible PAF they could be and for wanting to be approachable and someone their advisees could trust and turn to for honest. For many PAFs, this feeling about being the best and most useful PAF for their students was linked to their feeling about how the role of PAFs should be seen. As one senior PAF directly stated it, "There's a big focus on PAFs not being friends, which I get in a lot of ways, but I also think that I've gotten closest with PAFees [in my three years of being a PAF] when I've been super candid and open about my real experiences at Harvard." Another senior who is a third year PAF said in answer to the question asking what is the one thing they would change about the PAF program: "The 'not being friends with your PAFees' rule. It makes it feel too formal! For me, the only way to become actually a valued mentor for my PAFees is to break that rule. Obviously I don't buy my PAFees alcohol or say anything inappropriate to them, but I've found that with PAFees that I'm not friends with the relationship remains just as them texting me superficial logistical questions and there's less of a relationship."
This consistent theme and anxiety PAFs reckon with about how "friendly" they can be with PAFees while respecting the rule that they should not be "friends" with their students is clearly an important challenge that the PAF program faces. I did not expect this concern to be so prevalent and central to the criticisms many PAFs have about the PAF program but it is interesting that it is something that resonates with PAFs so much. This is worth examining more in my Action Research recommendations.
Being a Student AND an Adviser
The Challenge:The emotional burnout that can come from helping first-year students with their own challenges and difficulties while PAFs are also students themselves with their own issues and vulnerabilities.
"I honestly feel it has significantly increased the amount of emotional labor I have needed to expend over the past year, which has been difficult while dealing with my own problems at the same time that I have to keep up with 9 advisees who often don't proactively reach out or reciprocally invest in a relationship with me. This was especially exhausting at the beginning of the year, when I really had to crack through their shells and get to know each one of them. Now that I have gotten to know many of them, our meetings have become much more casual and positive, though there are still some who I feel don't really fully see me as a resource and I often feel it is almost a chore to invest so much emotional energy and care into helping them when they seem they truly don't want/need my help."
This is something that I can also relate to from my own experience being a PAF, especially this year. For me, I have had a personally challenging year and have had to learn more what it means to put myself first and work out what self-care looks like for me. I have had to make use of many Harvard resources and offices that I myself have learned about during PAF training and have struggled with reconciling how I can give advice to my students and remain optimistic and confident in referring my students to resources on campus when I have had negative experiences with these offices or when they have failed me. To look on the positive side of my own experience this year, I have felt fortunate to have administrators in the PAF program and supportive co-PAFs who have helped me through this year. I think the Director of the PAF program should try to make sure that every PAF feels equally supported by continuing to encourage reflection and personal check-ins at monthly PAF meetings and also making sure that Eagle PAFs (the lead PAFs) are supporting PAFs throughout their time as PAFs, and especially in their first semester.
As will also be discussed in my Action Research Blueprint, the personal welfare of PAFs is a really important (but likely not new) finding of my research and something that administrators working on the PAF program and other adults at Harvard need to continue being conscious of. After all, PAFs are students too and need to continue receiving support and guidance in their roles.
As my survey responses and interviews also showed, the challenge of being a close confidant and emotional support system for other students also comes with the opportunity to personally grow and emotionally mature. Many PAFs told of how their own student experience or perspectives changed thanks to being a PAF. Forgive me for extensively quoting here but I feel that this full range of survey responses, from PAFs of all grades and all levels of experience, shows just how much PAFing can be a growth opportunity and humbling learning experience for PAFs too:
- "It reminds me to keep thinking through my own life here, and to prioritize happiness and health and not get too overwhelmed by smaller things."
- "I believe that being a PAF has made me more aware of certain things. I no longer consider just my own experiences, but I am always thinking of those of my blockmates, friends, acquaintances, etc. I find that I am a better listener, instead of just absorbing stories, I now also note what groups people get involved in and what type of experience they had… I also find that PAFing has made it easier for me to admit my shortcomings. I do not know what it's like to be BGLTQ or a non Lantix minority. When PAFees come to me with problems or asking for guidance related to these areas, I have to admit I am not their best resource. I think this is pretty unique for a Harvard organization since it forces you to recognize you won't always be able to do everything and acknowledge it frankly."
- "It calms me down. I see freshmen struggling through freshmen year and it reminds me that I'm not the only one having a lot of trouble with college. It also makes me feel like I belong more at Harvard, since I am effectively representing Harvard from the perspective of the freshmen."
- "Being a PAF has constantly exposed me to new ways of thinking and to the boundless opportunities/resources available to students at Harvard. I have grown so much from my relationship with PAFees; personally, I feel I have become more empathetic and a better listener. I have also been pushed to explore new interests that have come up in discussions with PAFees. Many conversations with PAFees have also urged me to maintain a commitment to my personal values, including exploration, compassion, selflessness, and dedication."
Quality and Overall Impact of PAFs
The Challenge:Observing a great variation in the quality of PAFs which is in some ways due to an emphasis on guidelines of what makes a good PAF and less so on formal accountability and required expectations.
Many PAFs noted and commended efforts taken by the Director of the PAF program this year and the Eagle PAFs to improve the standard of PAFs across the board by increasing accountability and setting clearer expectations. All returning PAFs (second or third year PAFs) who brought up PAF expectations, quality, or accountability referred to the rubric that was a new creation for the 2017-2018 academic year and credited it as having helped clarify PAF expectations. New PAFs also referred to the rubric, but many did not fully realize that it was new this year and still expressed doubt about specific PAF expectations and responsibilities. Here is a screenshot of what this rubric looks like:
The PAFs I interviewed gave useful feedback on PAF expectations and the standard of PAFs across the board. One senior male, a third year PAF, argued that he "would like a better way for PAFs to be held accountable because there are still some PAFs that don't meet the expectations of the program." When asked further about this problem of inconsistency in PAF standard, he said, "They are trying to fix this with the rubric. But I think it goes back to hiring but it's kind of hard to hire people because you don't know what they'll do because they have never done it before. So it is kind of like trying to predict. There's some things that I do that other PAFs don't do. And do I look down on them? No, but it's like going above and beyond and I just expect too much or more of other PAFs. For example, one of my previous co-PAFs would send out study break emails the day before or the day of but you should send it out three days before or send it on Friday to tell them it is on Tuesday… There's a lot of stuff that PAFees don't see that is going on behind the scenes and they need to have a better sense of what they should be able to fairly expect from a PAF." I probed this PAF further in our interview and asked "What can better accountability look like?" To this, he answered: "Set clear guidelines on what you have to do. Instead of suggestions, give specific times for how often you should meet with students. The rubric should be more rules instead of expectations. The problem is that there are some things in the "Above and Beyond" that every PAF should do. Like every PAF should go to a performance or show or sports game that their PAFee is putting on or playing in."
Across the board, PAFs argued for more accountability and clearer expectations for two primary reasons: (1) because PAFs are paid (they each receive a stipend of $500 each semester) and it is unfair for PAFs who don't do their job to be paid when other PAFs are going above and beyond and receive the same compensation; and (2) because peer advising is only successful when PAFs fulfill their responsibilities properly and every freshman deserves to get a high quality, committed peer adviser. PAFs felt that increasing the quality of PAFs overall would come with "a little more structure." There ought to be "more instruction for new PAFs," they argued, "as well as more clear expectations/guidelines that can function more as rules instead of suggestions." Although some PAFs argued that "the rubric this year has been a great step in this direction," recruitment of PAFs is also important and some requested that there is a "need to rethink how we recruit and select PAFs - not necessarily as much for diversity of experiences and more for people who want to do this job and who can demonstrate that they are dedicated, committed advisers." These are valid and insightful observations that can be targeted in my Action Research Blueprint.