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Conversations about Students as Partners

    In our debut issue of a zine about students as partners, we have shared research partnerships on campus between students and faculty, creative projects between students, and even ideas about how to think about the wider partnerships had as a community. However, there are common and long-standing partnerships on campus that may be so commonplace that it is easy to forget they are the type of partnerships we hope to nurture here at the Zine. One such partnership is the Supplemental Instruction (SI) Program where SI Leaders (SILs) work with professors “to improve students’ grades and increase student graduation rates”. This is done through open communication with the professor and peer-led study sessions with students by SILs. I had the chance to meet with the current director of the program, Dr. Stephanie Hall-Sturgis as well as SI assistant supervisors Zenon Sommers and Alyssa Boye.

    Christopher Thomas: What are some of the challenges and opportunities of working alongside and communicating with faculty, staff, and students in the SI program?

    Alyssa Boye: Yeah, I could start off by talking about some of the positive experiences I’ve had. I know that a lot of students who are SILs end up doing research with the professors that they support because they built this really great relationship with them. This will often lead to letters of recommendation for Grad school or Med school. There are definitely some difficulties too. In our contact with the provost as student employees, there is a lot we don’t have access to and a lot of conversations that we can’t be a part of. So sometimes communication can be pretty tricky in terms of how we can and can’t help, but there’s still a lot of really great things still happening for sure.

    CT: I didn’t even think about the provost aspect of it. One of the questions does mention that aspect of the SI programs’ wider partnerships.

    Zenon Sommers: I think the other part to look at too is that we work with everyone from the provost all the way down to a freshman who’s just started out and taking PSYC 101 or any other introductory course that we support. Getting to meet people at all different points in their college career, whether they are starting as a freshman for the first time out of high school or whether they got a degree in one subject, but here they are 15 years later. Coming back for a degree in another subject. It’s all really enriching. I know one student that I was working with today had to get someone to drive her grandchildren to school so she could make it here to talk about psychology statistics. It’s great to see all of them growing, learning, and improving as they work to become the members of the workforce that they’re training themselves to be in partnership with the university.

    Stephanie Hall-Sturgis: And for me it’s awesome to see all the students growing. From all the different levels, whether it’s my assistant supervisors’ professional growth and development or the SILs on the Program grow more confident and secure in what they’re doing. I love that!

    CT: Would you say being exposed to these differing perspectives gives better understanding and insight into the different circumstances or individuals that are coming into higher education? I’d imagine it stops any narrow understanding of what a college student is or is supposed to be in your interactions and even helps you interact better outside of college as well given these varying experiences?

    ZS: I think that in any context where you’re working, whether that’s supervising the SI program, leading as a SIL, or even just in our roles as students. The more people we interact with directly the more experience we have in working with different people with different life goals or dreams. I think the more different cases that we’re exposed to, the better informed our decisions can be in any context.

    AB: It’s a different perspective also when you’re working with students, rather than just being another pair of students because we are students. We are living through this too, so you would think that we fully understand, but once you’re in this different position and getting feedback about how they’re doing and what they’re struggling with, you see that sometimes it’s almost the same, but a lot of times it’s different from what you’re struggling with. So having a different relationship with the other students and your peers is also something that I found has helped me broaden my perspective about college in general.

    SHS: And I would imagine that being in this program you see so many different strengths, right? Different skills bring different strengths and weaknesses into the position and through staff meetings, professional development, and feedback on the session plans, SILs get stronger in the weaker areas and shine where they’re already strong.

    ZS: Definitely.

    CT: And comparing your appreciation or understanding before being in the SI program with your appreciation or understanding after being in the SI program, would you say there has been any changes in how you view the students, faculty, or staff individually, but also their relationships?

    SHS: Good question.

    AB: Yeah. I’d say there’s been a bit of a change now that I’m with the program. I found that it opens a lot of doors in that you build a pretty close relationship to the professors that you’re supporting as well as our assistant position. You know, we are reaching out to a lot of professors, getting their input about the program, and organizing different meetings events. It’s interesting just getting to talk one on one with professors. When professors know I’m an assistant supervisor for this program, they will ask me a lot of questions about it, and just having that kind of conversation with a professor, is something I had never experienced before. It was very odd probably the first time it happened, but it builds a pretty strong bond, and it makes me feel like I’m very familiar with the people I work with.

    ZS: Definitely, and I would say that happens a lot in the SIL role as well. The first time that I supported a course as a SIL I got to experience that transition of viewing the professor as someone who was there to grade me poorly and send me out scared of the subject to viewing them as someone I’m working together with as a colleague to help students learn. And not only in the SI program did my perception of things change, but also in SI sessions and classes there’s opportunities to sort of spread the love a little bit. Say when you’re in an SI session and a student comes in and is like, oh my gosh, the professor is such an xyz, and is so nitpicky about this and really makes everything so hard. It gives an opportunity to have those conversations with other students about a different perspective on the professor role and a different perspective on how students and professors can interact. So that’s been a really powerful thing for me to be able to see in my last three years with SI.

    AB: Yeah, I have noticed that a lot too. I feel sometimes SILs can act as a kind of bridge between the students and professors. I know from my experience in SI sessions students have asked me about having testing anxiety, how to study better, and wanting to talk to the professor, but feeling uncomfortable. And just being there to bridge the gap between those two and kind of share your relationship with the professor to the student is sort of encouraging them to build that relationship. That has been something that I’ve also noticed as a SIL.

    CT: My questions are a bit wordy so bear with me, but would you say that the SI relationship between faculty and students impacts the perceptions or views that the administration has? And how would you say that affects administration decision making? Or would you say that there’s any noticeable effect at all that it has?

    SHS: So, you’re asking about the impact that the relationship between SILs, faculty, and students has on the administration?

    CT: Yeah, and you all already mentioned the provost too, so I was thinking, oh my gosh, it’s like a movie, you sort of foreshadowed this question.

    SHS: I think that there’s a lot of feedback with regards to what’s going on in the SI program up to the administration level because they’re always trying to figure out what we can do to tweak it. How can we make it better, how can we offer more services for students, you know? Where are the weaknesses, what are we doing? We’re always working on how we can make the program better. Take all feedback from our SILs for the students who attend the sessions. We do all kinds of midterm surveys, in-semester surveys. We’re always trying to gather that data, so we can figure out; okay, what do we need to do better? Where are we lacking? What are we doing well? So, I think it’s a lot of feedback as we’re trying to make it the best program that we can have.

    ZS: Chris correct me if I’m wrong, I think that the question was more so about how the work that the SI program does impacts the administration more broadly, rather than like how does the administration tell us what to do?

    CT: Not more broadly, but because a lot of decisions that the administration makes are going to impact students and faculty, do you notice how the SI program impacts the administration’s decision making?

    ZS: Okay.

    SHS: Well, it’s data driven, right? Zenon wouldn’t you say the whole program is data-driven?

    AB: I feel like it’s more of the student employees that are aiding in that relationship with faculty and students in my experience. If that makes sense.

    ZS: Yeah. In response to your question as you worded it my one-word answer would be no. There’s very little involvement, like direct involvement, in what SI does beyond Dr. S’s boss, who’s boss’s boss is the provost, right?

    SHS: Right.

    ZS: That said, there have definitely been occasions in the past where the SI program has engaged with the administration to advocate for different policies university wide, but that’s something that we’ve been asked no longer to do. So that’s no longer something that this program is engaged in, that is, advocating to administration directly.

    CT: Okay. I didn’t know the SI program had history of doing that. That’s very interesting.

    SHS: That happened before my tenure, Chris. I wasn’t here.

    ZS: It used to be the case that SILs would organize groups to go to regents’ meetings, talk the the Chancellor, listening sessions and stuff like that, right? Where SILs would go to express concerns that they’re getting from their students and concerns of their own. In a group setting with remarks prepared and numbers behind what they’re talking about, very data driven, and go straight to the administration, make their case, and have those conversations. But again, that was in the past and something we’ve been asked no longer to do.

    SHS: Because we want to foster a more collaborative approach between faculty, staff, and students.

    ZS: I don’t know I’d say that. That was probably the maximally collaborative approach, because it was having those direct collaborative conversations. It definitely made it more of a two-way street , right? And now with the new policy of not doing that anymore, that element is probably in the opposite direction of what you’re looking for in the Zine.

    CT: It is.

    ZS: Yeah, like an escalation of the antagonism, I guess.

    AB: Yeah.

    CT: I definitely would make that conclusion and to sort of bounce off the question I just asked because of what you mentioned Dr. S, and I know every semester there are surveys given to students for course assessments, do you ever look at that data and compare when there is a SIL in the course to when there isn’t a SIL in the course? Looking at the results of those student assessments are you seeing any specific trends?

    ZS: The short answer is no; we don’t have access to that data. The data that we do have access to is a report we send to the IRE, which is the office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness. They help us figure out what impact SI has on grade point average. We see more quantitative impact like what the average grade of a given course for students who did attend SI vs. didn’t attend SI as well as who attended more SI vs. less SI. The general message I can relay to you is that the more SI you attend the better your grade is. Last academic year our average improvement was a little over a quarter of a [letter] grade, for attending any SI at all, up to almost half a [letter] grade improvement if you attend SI every week.

    CT: Do faculty receive any surveys about their experience of the course?

    ZS: Yes, and not every faculty member is very happy with us. Most faculty are very happy with is.

    SHS: We’re not perfect. We try.

    ZS: You know, some of it has to do with a misalignment between our goals and faculty’s goals. For example, one faculty member we had was upset because the SIL wouldn’t do exactly what the faculty member asked the SIL to do. Except that’s not what the SIL’s job is. We had a couple SILs resign for medical reasons, so those professors were very unhappy because we weren’t able to provide a replacement for the SI leader. This has both to do with the labor shortage and new policies in place that we’re not allowed to keep substitutes to fill in when people have to step down for courses. I’d say these are the primary sources of any dissatisfaction.

    CT: That’s interesting, I’d say that’s good news, not bad news.

    AB: There are a lot of professors who are highly satisfied with the SI program.

    CT: The majority are happy.

    SHS: Yeah, for the faculty, the majority are very pleased with their SIL.

    ZS: Yeah. It’s a very positive experience for the student employees as we find out when we have them evaluate the program and their experience with it. It’s a very positive experience for the students who attend Si sessions too because we survey them directly at the end of every semester.

    CT: I can definitely say Alyssa made cognitive psychology – oh yeah! You were in the class too. Sadly, I didn’t come to all the SI sessions.

    ZS: Was that fall of last year?

    CT: It was winter.

    ZS: Winter this year, yeah, I was there too. That was a good time.

    CT: I was always told not to ask yes or no questions, but is there a trend in the type of students in terms of career goals or academic backgrounds that become SILs? For example, do you all usually see someone who’s trying to become a research scientist, or would you say it’s more diverse in this respect?

    SHS: No, it’s all over the place.

    ZS: Yeah, there is no trend. We have traditional students and non-traditional students. In the past we had one SIL who had to bring her three-year-old daughter to some meetings, and she became the collective child of the program and would hang out in the office while her mom was in class. We have students who are hoping to head straight into the workforce, into health professions, or research careers. We have prelaw students, engineers, aspiring mathematicians, and business students. So yeah, we have just about everyone.

    Interview conducted and edited by Christopher Thomas.