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Things I Learned as a PAL

December 7, 2018

For those of you who haven’t read my blog before, or need a reminder, this past semester I had the honor and privilege to work as a Peer Advising Leader (PAL). The PAL program is in its second year at Oberlin. The program organizes first-year students by their First-Year Seminar and places them with an older peer mentor who guides them through their first semester at Oberlin. As a PAL, I conducted several sessions during orientation and taught a biweekly class called LEAD 050: Introduction to Life and Learning at Oberlin. Being a PAL was a phenomenal experience and I learned a lot. In true Ruth fashion, I’ve made a list of some things that I learned/was reminded of through my role as a PAL this semester.

1.    I have better facilitation skills than I thought, and I love doing facilitation and mentoring work!

Prior to being a PAL, I have worked as a mentor and co-chair with the Girls in Motion ExCo and after-school program (read about it here). I knew that I had developed my facilitation and leadership skills, but I didn’t realize to what extent until I started my work as a PAL. After an intense one-week training, and once orientation began, I realized that I felt way more comfortable talking to a group of people and facilitating discussions and activities. I even, dare I say, enjoyed it? As an introvert who historically has been uncomfortable with and intimidated by being in a leadership position, I have realized that I love providing support, organizing, and leading, even if I find it tiring sometimes. To my friends and family reading this blog, they may not be very surprised by this realization, but this is a new thing for me! I learned a lot about myself from doing this work as a PAL (augmented by my work as a DLEC in Tank and being a Girls in Motion co-chair again), and I’m really thankful I’m able to appreciate and recognize this self-growth. 

2.    Oberlin has so many resources to help students!!!

A big part of PAL training involved learning about all the different resources available on Oberlin’s campus. Some I learned about were not new to me, but I also learned about so many other resources on campus in place to help support students, no matter their identity and story. Learning about all these resources, including some online ones, assisted me in helping not only my PALees (the first years), but also some of my own friends and Oberlin upperclassmen. Knowing that I go to a school where there are a lot of mechanisms in place to help students is really reassuring, and being able to point people in the direction of those resources is really empowering. Something that frustrates me a lot is wanting to help other people but not knowing how—and being educated about all the on-campus and online resources here at Oberlin is something that has helped me help others. 

3.    College is hard.

So, this isn’t so much a realization as a reminder, but COLLEGE IS SO HARD. While my first semester at Oberlin was definitely challenging and stressful at times, overall my adjustment to Oberlin was really seamless, which is why I decided to become a PAL. My easy adjustment to Oberlin is part of what made my first year here so great, and I wanted to help others have that same positive experience. While I had my own challenges this semester, seeing the challenges my PALees dealt with was eye-opening. Every person has a distinct identity and experience and it can be easy to forget that because a lot of the people I surround myself with have similar experiences to my own, which is something I sometimes wish were different about my Oberlin education. But my struggles are not generalizable to other students, and the things I struggled with during my first year don’t align with what I saw my first-years struggling with. Helping them troubleshoot things was a challenge, but so rewarding when I was actually able to provide guidance, say something helpful, or point them in the direction of the correct resource. But sometimes I was genuinely confused about what to say or do, which leads me to…

4.    Sometimes things are out of your control, even if you have the best intentions.

This is also something I know objectively, but in the PAL program sometimes problems come up that are out of the jurisdiction of the PAL. Sometimes my first-years had challenges that I didn’t know how to address, or that I felt I couldn’t help them with. This was frustrating, because I really wanted to be able to help, but sometimes you just can’t. PALs are students too, and there is only so much we can do in our role as PALs. Luckily, there are lots of mechanisms in place for the PALs themselves to reach out and get help for their PALees if they themselves can’t provide what the student needs. 

5.    Having an older student mentor as a mentor is one of the most valuable things that you can get out of your college education.

I didn’t take the LEAD 050 class as a first-year, so my contact with the PAL program was limited (Yes, I see the irony here). Luckily, I ended up working with a lovely fourth-year through Girls in Motion—Naomi Roswell—who started as a mentor and became a friend—and is still both, even though she’s graduated. This week she came back to Oberlin to visit, and it was amazing to reconnect, catch up, and talk about what we’ve experienced and learned at our different points in our college and post-grad journeys. Having an older student to talk to about navigating all the emotional and personal aspects of Oberlin, as well as the academic ones, was so, so important for me my first year. And while I am only one year older than my PALees, I still have an extra year of Oberlin experiences on my side. As a first-year I pretty much only hung out with first-years—which isn’t bad, and makes sense, but having an older, wiser student I could confer with was exactly the kind of guidance I needed. So even though I didn’t really have a relationship with my PAL, I was able to have a really strong and needed relationship with someone who wasn’t a first-year, and it changed my first year at Oberlin for the better. 

With all that being said, I loved being a PAL. I hope to do it for the rest of my time at Oberlin. This school is an amazing and special place and adjusting to it well ensures as positive an experience as possible. I think the PAL program is important for this reason, and it certainly served me well. I am still close friends with people I met on the very first day of orientation who I met through my PAL group. It definitely enhanced my first-year experience, and I’m so grateful I have the privilege and opportunity to work as a PAL and give back to the Oberlin community. 

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