Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Peer Advising: A Blueprint for Action

As a result of this autoethnography project from both interviewing Peer Advising Fellows at Harvard and researching peer advising at other institutions, I propose the following Action Research plan and suggestions to reshape and reconsider the Peer Advising Fellow program at Harvard. This list is by no means meant to be indicative of an unsuccessful peer advising structure at Harvard and these recommendations alone are not meant to be a panacea for all challenges peer advisors face at Harvard. Peer advisors, after all, are students themselves and their experiences and the challenges they face in their roles as PAFs are influenced by a number of factors at Harvard. However, these recommendations hope to provide a sound starting point and intend to create further thoughtfulness and reflection among Directors of the PAF program, both college administrators and the student lead PAFs (or in other words, those who are known as Eagle PAFs).

This project has shown two major challenges that PAFs face and therefore tangible places for improvement and opportunities for change. First, there is a concern about the overall accountability of PAFs and consistency in the effectiveness of PAFs. Almost all of the PAFs I interviewed had criticisms about how PAFs meet the expectations of PAFing and expressed doubt about when PAFs know they are being bad, okay, good, or excellent PAFs. The second area that PAFs consistently named as being a challenging part of their role was the efficacy of PAFing due to PAFs being students themselves. As students, PAFs have struggles that they encounter by being students themselves with busy lives and also they face barriers and burdens to being advisors based on the peer aspect of the relationship.

I hope that these recommendations will seek to address these two main identified challenges of PAFing:
1. In order to create a clearer framework of accountability and increase the overall quality and efficacy of PAFs, there needs to be a clearer expectation of PAFs and those expectations should be framed within the purposes of the program and linked back to the mission of Harvard College.
PAFs have acknowledged, and I agree, that the rubric for PAFing that was created this year has been a great starting point for outlining expectations. However, the contents of this rubric need to be integrated more and communicate more directly with the expectations outlined in the official appointment letter/contract given to PAFs when they are offered the position. The rubric has a section for “Doesn’t Meet Expectations,” which, although helpful, gives the impression that it is permissible to not meet expectations.

The culture of PAFing needs to change to emphasize the goal of everyone being an excellent PAF. Beyond the rubric, this cultural emphasis can be achieved by more explicit acknowledgment during training that there is a huge variation in PAFs and how the program is seeking for everyone to be an excellent PAF. In the current program of training, these conversations about “how to PAF” and “how to be a great PAF” are done in a smaller context – in break-off groups of approximately ten PAFs and an Eagle PAF (a lead PAF), and sometimes more experienced (what the PAF program calls, “veteran”) PAFs. This smaller group setting may make sense for the opportunity it provides for a more informal, casual, open conversation, however, to ensure that the same message is given to all PAFs and that it is done so assertively and emphasized for its importance, the Director of the PAF Program should consider making these sessions more a part of the larger format of training and they should themselves be the ones to talk about these expectations and what makes an excellent PAF. This goes hand-in-hand with explicitly emphasizing how integral PAFs are to achieving the mission of Harvard College and therefore encouraging PAFs to see themselves as agents and significant players in this greater cause.

In part, this variation in quality of PAFs also links back to the way PAFs are recruited. Overall, PAFs feel that the application and selection process for new PAFs is rigorous, fair, and uses valid judgments, but it is worth reminding Directors of the PAF program to be cognizant that being a good PAF requires ample time to be fully committed to the role and therefore some very busy, engaged, and actively involved students in the Harvard community may not be the best people for the job.

Another component of this accountability should be in directly communicating to first-year students information about the purpose of peer advising at Harvard and what their PAFs are expected to do.Currently, first-year students are introduced to PAFing and many will first learn about it in an email sent from their PAF introducing themselves. I understand the desired personal nature of these emails and the role they have in creating rapport and a relationship between peers. However, as PAFs have acknowledged in my surveys and interviews, the huge variation in quality of PAFs may also be explained because those who are most relied on to provide feedback and evaluations of PAFs – the first-year students – may not have a clear sense of what their PAFs are expected to do. Ensuring that all first-year students understand the expectations of their advisers (not just their PAFs, but proctors and academic advisers too) will help make PAFs more accountable and allow first-years to better identify and offer feedback on when their PAFs may not be fully fulfilling all their required duties.
2. The second realm of challenges, the tension PAFs feel in balancing their own lives of students with being advisers, can be helped by increasing access to resources and creating more sense of community among all PAFs.
As students, and often a self-selective group of students who are high-achievers and very involved on campus, PAFs are often busy and can be overwhelmed with balancing their day-to-day obligations and their own busy lives with the lives of their advisees. But PAFs overall are selfless people who want to do their best to put the lives and needs of their first-year students first. There are certain ways though that the advising work that PAFs do can be made easier, and therefore the support first-year students receive, can be increased. One suggestion is for there to be a better network of online resources for PAFs. During my time at PAFing there has been an attempt to create a “PAF website” or Google folder to save resources and materials that can be useful to PAFs. There have also been whisperings of creating a PAF directory that PAFs can use to search by concentration area, extracurricular activities, or a certain interest or piece of information to find other PAFs to consult about a particular issue and get more direct advice or assistance in helping PAFees. These ideas for a PAF resource folder/website and a searchable PAF directory to find PAFs that can be helpful in a particular situation are valid and useful steps. However, they should be fully followed through on, officially implemented, and institutionalized as part of the PAF program. They will help PAFs do a better job in their roles and free up PAFs from sometimes having to create advising resources of their own (when there are often tried and tested ones that work very well already) or from frantically researching or trying to find PAFs to help them with a particular issue.

Many PAFs recognize that the training they receive in August is very effective and includes many important topics that are necessary to be well-informed, effective, and good PAFs. However, due to the time constraints of training, there is an expressed desire among PAFs for there to be more training on certain issues. In order to combat this tension between the amount of time there is to train PAFs and the important wealth of information that PAFs need to know, I would encourage the PAF program to think of how training can both precede and extend beyond the four-day training offered to PAFs before freshman move-in. Thought should be given to working with the offices, administrators, and guest speakers who visit PAF training and present on particular issues in order to help these people develop online training videos or webinars that can be made accessible to PAFs, and mandatory to view and watch, before arriving on campus at the end of August, or available to watch later in the year as training on particular areas becomes more relevant.

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