Drexel's Peer Counseling Program Is for Students, With Students
"We know that sometimes students want to come to professional counseling or they have clinical issues that they want to discuss with a therapist, but we're also mindful that, especially post-COVID, students want to talk to someone who really understands what it's like to be a student in 2023," said Sarah Maver, PsyD, staff psychologist at the Drexel University Counseling Center.
That need for mutual understanding led to the Counseling Center’s new Peer Counseling program. Starting this spring, eight trained students will be available for one-on-one conversations (both in-person and virtual) with Dragons seeking support in non-crisis situations. The Peer Counselors will have received training in active listening skills and cultural humility, among other topics, and can point students towards campus resources for referrals and other support. Now, for example, a student experiencing stress and anxiety related to academic struggles can meet a Peer Counselor who is also taking classes at Drexel and knows what academic support is available at the University.
To speak with a Peer Counselor, undergraduate and graduate students can visit the Peer Counseling website to schedule a conversation at various times throughout the week. In-person conversations will take place in two Peer Counseling offices in the basement of the Rush Building, which the Peer Counselors will also use for virtual conversations. The Counseling Center set up those offices during the winter term and outfitted them with comfy chairs, plants, comfort items and literature related to campus resources that students can take with them.
"The new spaces represent another effort for the Counseling Center to have mental health and wellness resources outside of our physical space in the Creese Student Center," said Tania Czarnecki, PsyD, executive director of counseling. "I think students can still feel connected to the spirit of the building and some of the activity, but there's still a level of privacy afforded to the space due to its location."
The Rush Building has become an important hub of student activity on the University City Campus. Czarnecki noted that the Peer Counseling offices are down the corridor from a newly renovated commuter lounge, the building also contains the Center for Black Culture, the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion and other offices related to student and campus engagement.
While Drexel offered peer-to-peer counseling in the past, the University is reintroducing the service at a time when mental health and wellness resources have been greatly expanded — and needed — during the past few years.
"We really believe in providing culturally responsive holistic care," said Maver. "Help-seeking, mental health and wellness can all look different for our diverse student body, and not all students need to speak to a professional therapist. We know from research that students typically talk to other students first when they have a problem."
The eight Peer Counselors, who received training from Maver during the winter term, come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. They created their own introductory biographies on the Peer Counseling website so students seeking help know who the Peer Counselors are and if they have experience with something a student is going through.
"We know that usage of peer counseling services is really high, typically, for Black, transgender, and first-generation college students who say that it's really important to find a peer counselor with similar identities or life experiences," said Czarnecki. "We have the data to back up our hopes and expectations for this program that students are going to find this really invaluable."
It’s also invaluable for the Peer Counselors themselves. Maggie Thioresta, a fourth-year psychology major and first-generation college student, hopes the experience will inform whether or not she should pursue future career opportunities in counseling.
"I learned from my involvement in Peer Counseling that we may differ in majors but we share the common ground of trying to navigate being in our emerging adulthood phase, all while trying to balance the rigors of Drexel's demanding schedule and curriculum," Thioresta said. "My mission of making everyone feel seen and included speaks to my desire of validating the experiences and perspectives of others and to reduce feelings of isolation on campus especially after enduring the Covid-19 lockdown.
This term is a soft launch of the program, especially since four of the eight Peer Counselors are graduating. In the next academic year, Maver and Czarnecki plan to expand the program and offer it year-round. Undergraduate and graduate students who want to learn active listening skills, support their fellow students and give back to the community can apply to become Peer Counselors this spring to start in the fall.
"Many students are here year-round, and we want this to be a year-round support for them," said Czarnecki. "We acknowledge that sometimes things are lighter in the summer and some of the Peer Counselors are coming and going in different ways, so stay tuned for what happens in the summer. But this is something that we would love to continue doing, and it's based on student participation and availability."