teaching with writing across the curriculum
The George Mason University WAC Program Newsletter (Fall 2009)


Peer Tutor and Writing Fellow Alums Report Professional and Personal Benefits

Reported by Ben Wilkins, TA MFA

Mason’s peer tutors are exceptional students and writers from an array of disciplines who have been invited to take the experiential peer tutoring course, CHSS 390, which allows them to join a staff of predominantly graduate tutors for up to three semesters. Although they are undergraduates, the peer tutors work with the same range of clients as the graduate tutors do, and many go on to work with professors as writing fellows. To understand more about the benefits these undergrads experienced as part of the writing center community, we sent surveys to 63 alums from the past 10 years to discover what academic and interpersonal skills they felt they had acquired as tutors and how they were applying these skills in their lives after college.

Peer tutors come to the writing center from fields as diverse as finance, biology, and anthropology, and they typically go on to continue work in those fields. Whatever their background, the 27 alums who responded to the survey said that their time in the program gave them skills that proved broadly applicable. Of the respondents, 88% said they used the skills they gained and the overall experience at the writing center in either the hiring process for employment or the application process for grad school.

Learned widely applicable skills

Afra Saeed Ahmad, a psychology major and honors student, said that the experience “helped me get selected for a Fulbright. The Fulbright is a program which promotes mutual understanding between countries, and I mentioned in my application that, in my host country, I would give back by tutoring.” Afra is now tutoring ESL students in the writing center at the University of the United Arab Emirates in Dubai, where, she says, she draws on past tutor training every day. Another former tutor from anthropology, Alex Antram, attributes the peer tutor experience to her being awarded a graduate teaching assistantship in anthropology because she “learned pedagogies that can be applied in teaching any discipline, including lesson planning, alternative approaches to instruction, and how to help unconventional students excel.”

The peer tutoring experience proved beneficial in other professional environments as well. Emily Kayser, an English major who graduated in 2000, said that she still included peer tutoring on her resume because “in my experience, employers have a real desire to find people who are proven, efficient communicators.” Former religious studies major, Gillian Parish, a 2004 alum, noted, “Even when I created my CV, it was informed by the kind of keen-eyed arrangement of material the writing center work fosters.” Ahriel Harris, an accounting major who spent four semesters as a peer tutor and a writing fellow, wrote, “I’ve referred to my writing center experience as a universal skill set, one revolving around more than just the ability to process numbers.” Romina Boccia, an economics major, said, “I was interviewed extensively about my writing center work as I applied for a summer internship with a public policy institute. I also had a professor include it in his recommendation for me to attend grad school.”

Improved communication skills

Many of the alums said they use the skills that they learned in the writing center in their current occupations. To illustrate, Shabnam Tehrani, a business major who works as a financial analyst, wrote that the analytical skills she learned in her time at the writing center allowed her to “better analyze financial statements and catch mistakes,” and even prepared her to “conduct meetings because of my enhanced communication skills.” Ahriel also noted, “I developed the ability to speak to different audiences with more confidence that I might have, which I use now in my work as a public accountant when I work with corporate accounting managers.”

All of the alums noted that their own writing skills improved overall. Many said they developed a greater awareness of how specialized disciplinary writing is in the context of the diversity of writing projects they saw in the writing center. As English major Angela Panayotopulos put it, “Not only did I become even more familiar with the practicalities and writing rules, I also learned to be more attentive to different methodologies and the fundamental key components of academic writing, so my own style has been enriched.” Romina credited at least part of her 2009 Hayek Award for the best essay in economics to her writing center training because of the critical eye she developed as a tutor.

Joined a community of writers

On a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, alums rated peer tutoring as a 4.7 in importance in their overall undergraduate experience. In explaining her top rating, Tonka Dobreva, an international affairs major, wrote that her experience “helped me connect with other writers, communicate and get feedback from them as well.” In fact, while improved writing skills certainly had something to do with the alums’ overall positive experience, the second largest role that the program played for them was in creating a sense of community. Tutors not only spent time with one another and with students seeking their help, but also were mentored by the graduate tutors. Angela, for example, said, “I found myself surrounded by a great team who were equally devoted to the tutoring task, and, for that reason, proved all the more inspiring. Everyone helped each other, and the atmosphere was extremely encouraging as well as instructive.” Alex said “The writing center became my home away from home as an undergraduate.”

It seems clear from the peer tutor alums’ survey comments that the peer tutoring program is very much a success. Sean Sullivan, a 2004 economics alum who will earn an econ PhD and a JD degree from the University of Virginia this spring, put the general consensus into these words: “Working at the writing center greatly expanded the foundation of my undergraduate education, and what modest accomplishments I have since made have leaned heavily on that support.”