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Students supporting students: Towards developing a Trustees Model

Peer support is important especially during the first year of studies. In this challenging pandemic time, it is even more crucial to ensure that the motivation of students to finish their courses and studies are sustained.

While lecturers and staff offer different kinds of support and assistance to students, it is at times difficult to reach out to everyone and not all students are willing to admit that they need extra support. With all these issues in mind, the Diak’s Trustees Model for DSS (Bachelor’s Degree on Social Sciences) students was developed.

The concept of having trustees is widely used in the field of community organizing and activism. In community organizing, it is deemed important to appoint individuals who will ensure that everyone in the group feels valued and motivated, and most importantly, that everyone feels safe. Trustees act as mediators – someone who is ready to listen, interact, and give perspectives that the person needing support might not notice otherwise.

In the context of A49dss, trustees are volunteer students who help other students in their class or group. The A49dss trustees model was piloted in September 2020 – May 2021. After drafting the ground rules, four student trustees were appointed by the class. The group also agreed that the main role of the trustees was to support their peer students in their studies as well as other issues related to personal and study life balance. The trustees will also work together with the teacher adviser, in case there were internal issues or challenges within the class. This report is a short overview of the A49dss trustees model, the challenges that the trustees encountered and some recommendations for further development.

Supporting peer students as trustees

A49dss students contacted their appointed trustees concerning several issues. It is estimated that around 85 percent  of the A49dss students had some contact with the trustees. Each trustee played a different role in the process. They were also contacted at different times and for different reasons. Some trustees were also contacted more than the others and their peer students mostly contact the trustees that they feel most comfortable with. One of the trustees also developed a system to send a message to all the A49dss students individually through WhatsApp and keep in touch with those who responded to the message on a regular basis.

It is estimated that around 85 percent  of the A49dss students had some contact with the trustees. Each trustee played a different role in the process.

The trustees estimated that weekly support was given to several students during the fall semester. The contact lessened during the spring semester, which can be attributed to the fact that most of the students had their first placements.

Below is an outline of the support that the trustees have provided:

Practical matters regarding studying in Diak

Examples:

  • Answered questions regarding Diak’s campus/premises
  • Explained the class schedule and reminded the group of their schedules.
  • Answered questions regarding lunch and student discounts
  • Provided support in using Tuudo, Diakle as well as other technical support
  • Assisted students in using the library and searching for references (books and online materials)

Support related to studies and courses

  • Answered questions regarding the assignments
  • Provided support on cases of plagiarism
  • Discussed with students some ways or tools on how to get started with the assignments

Support related to group work

  • Helped the students to deal with unequal distribution of tasks in group work
  • Assisted in handling group work related conflicts (free-riders, miscommunication or lack of communication between group members)
  • Listened to students who are having problems with their groups

Personal support related to mental health and well-being

  • Helped the students to deal with the stress and anxiety due to a big workload or missing deadlines
  • Showed understanding to students who feel insecure and were doubting their ability to continue their studies
  • Listened to students who feel overwhelmed with the workload
  • Validated the struggles of their peer students through sharing of mutual experiences
  • Congratulated and praised achievements (big or small) of peer students
  • Believed in and encouraged their peer students.

There are also initiatives that were introduced by the trustees.

  1. Student circles – One of the trustees initiated the creation of student circles. The trustee purposely pursued those students who seem to be losing their motivation to study. The trustee approached these students personally and contacted them outside of the class hours.
  2. WhatsApp Peer support group – The group was created by one of the trustees for anyone who needed a place to vent and get support about well-being and mental health. The group adheres to the idea of safe space and confidentiality. The whole class were invited to join the group and only those who were interested to be a part of the group were added to the WhatsApp peer support group. After some time since the creation of the group, the addition of each new member had to be agreed on by other members.In the chat, everyone is free to share their struggles and support each other at any time. The trustee facilitates some of the discussions and is active in supporting others. The members occasionally check in with others by asking how everyone is doing. Through the chat, mental health topics and issues are normalized. The members realize that they are not alone with these struggles and that they are not worse than their peers. The members also share some advice on coping, studying and self-care. The members also expressed their appreciation of the chat group – because of the group, they feel better and have more courage to tackle their challenges in their studies.

Challenges of the current trustees model

It is important to highlight that the trustees were already willing to engage with and volunteer their time to their peer students from the very beginning. Upon reflection, this genuine desire to support others is an important characteristic of a trustee. While the trustees have different skills and strengths, they were also able to complement each other and worked well together as a team.

Listening to their peer students’ frustrations, worries and experiences is challenging. During the fall semester, the relationship between the teacher adviser and the trustees was unclear. The trustees carried out their tasks and roles on their own, without any guidance from the teacher adviser. This challenge was raised during the meeting between the trustees and the teacher adviser in December 2020. In the same meeting, it was decided that the teacher adviser and trustees should meet at least once during the semester and that the trustees will inform the teacher adviser whenever a meeting is necessary to support their own well-being.

The trustees model can be considered as a good initiative to support the students in their studies.

It was also a challenge in the beginning to encourage their peer students to contact the trustees. At some point, one trustee was contacted more frequently than the other trustees. Building trust between the peer students and trustees takes time and effort and remote studies also made this extremely difficult. It was also challenging for the trustees to identify those who need extra support, those who wanted to be in touch as well as those who prefers to be left on their own.

Recommendations

The trustees model can be considered as a good initiative to support the students in their studies. After a reflective workshop session with the trustees, teacher adviser and guidance counselor, hHere are some recommendations on how to develop the model further:

  1. DSS groups will benefit on having their own trustees. While it is important that the class will be the one to appoint the trustees, it is essential that the trustees understand the voluntary nature of the task.
  2. There should be an orientation for the trustees in the beginning. The orientation can be provided by the trustees from the previous year or there can be a shared document that the new trustees can read before starting to assume the role.
  3. The trustees and the teacher adviser should have regular meetings scheduled throughout the semester. These meetings are important to support the well-being of the trustees.
  4. There should be a shared document where the trustees and the teacher adviser can get updates on what kind of issues the students have. The document will not contain any confidential or personal information, but rather some general descriptions of the issues. This way, the teacher adviser can monitor the trustees’ work and can even suggest meetings when deemed necessary. This documentation can also provide the DSS team of the current atmosphere/situation of the student groups.
  5. WhatsApp peer support group should continue. This is also an initiative that can be suggested to other DSS groups.
  6. Create student circles and assign 3 -4 circles to a trustee. This will make it easier for the trustee to check on the students and might also help the students to get in touch with the trustee that is assigned to their circle.
  7. Create a network of DSS trustees. The trustees from the previous year will be responsible to orient the trustees of the new students. DSS trustees can have their own Whatsapp group that they can also use to communicate with each other. Once the trustees graduate, they can also continue as the DSS Trustees alumni, who can serve as mentors to DSS students.
  8. The development of this model can be a good thesis topic for DSS students or trustees.
  9. Granting the trustees study credits to compensate for their time and effort should be considered. However, study credits should not be the main motivation for the trustees and the role should not also be advertised as such. The trustees should understand that the role is mainly voluntary and a genuine desire to help their peer students is necessary to achieve positive outcomes.

Based on the experiences of the trustees, it seems that the model helped the students maintain their motivation to study as well as provide support in dealing with their personal struggles, and therefore promoted the positive mental health of the students. The current trustees model is also instrumental in building a more sustainable and supportive DSS community.