Looking back over the last few weeks, Professor Linda Gnagey thinks about one meeting as particularly fortuitous. As director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Academic Success Center, Gnagey recruits, trains and manages about 35 student tutors from across all disciplines.
The lunch gathering for STEM tutors and the faculty who teach in courses they support happened just as news was breaking of an imminent move to online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a perfect time to think about how tutors could connect with students in new ways,” Gnagey said. “Ideas from that brainstorming were shared with other content and writing tutors in the days ahead. Our tutors continued to work, even when classes were canceled and professors were preparing for online formats.”
“This has been a really unique opportunity for our tutors to help students as they face learning challenges with new instructional methods,” she added.
One of those STEM tutors is senior engineering major Collin Longenecker, who is embedded with a first-year engineering course. Though initially he wasn’t sure how Zoom sessions would work, he’s been pleased so far.
“The students pop in and out and they can share their screen with me,” he said. “It is almost like I am in the engineering lab looking over their shoulder trying to help them troubleshoot the problem. I have been helping a few students that I had not helped before we went to online school which is cool. A class like this is very collaborative and not being able to do homework together does make it harder, so I am trying my best to be as available as possible for the students.”
Senior Megan Good, a writing studies major, acknowledges the transition hasn’t been all that simple — tutoring completely online is “both more frustrating and more rewarding.”
Now that she’s through the initial learning phase of figuring out how to connect through Zoom, “it feels wonderful to help students again.”
“I have one student who I meet with twice a week,’ she said, “and I know that she really needs my help. Being able to give her that help despite the difficulties has given me a lot of satisfaction.”
Writing tutor Elizabeth Miller, back in her hometown of Pettisville, Ohio, misses her face-to-face interactions, but says she’s still thankful for the technology that allows her to see someone’s face. “It’s also cool to see people in their own spaces,” she said. “I love that students continue to reach out–we are still here, available for meetings, and we’re happy to help. Some of the people I work with I have never met before, and even though we can’t meet in person, it’s fun to keep meeting more people from the EMU community.”
A recent highlight, Miller said, was coaching a student at the beginning of a research project. After discussions about “what she was passionate about” and the formulation of a research question, the pair worked on finding combinations of search terms. The potential to help someone at any stage of their writing process, “whether that be brainstorming at the beginning or forming a thesis or revising at the end,” is something Miller loves about tutoring.
Writing tutor Anisa Leonard sticks to her same routine with her clients, except she jokes that her prep is a little unusual. “In addition to looking over what the student needs help with, I also have to frantically make my bed and straighten my room to appear more ‘professional,’” she said.
Leonard feels most of her fellow students are generally “overwhelmed” by recent events. “Most of us had to move back home, and are adjusting to new routines and environments. Online classes are hard to navigate, and there just seems to be a lot of ‘I don’t know what the heck I’m doing,’” she said, “myself included.”
Clearly though, having peer support is making a difference to those students who have found the Academic Success Center.
Gnagey urges any student who needs help to fill out the online form, which includes space to identify specific needs as well as the most comfortable digital platform for appointments.
“We’ve got a fantastic group of tutors who can help you with any subject and can also help you as you’re figuring out how to learn best from the online format. We’ll find the right person to help you,” she said.