A photo of two people sitting across from each other at a table with laptops sitting on the table
Yas Drawns (left) works with Darius Williams, a peer academic coach. Peer Academic Coaching, which is part of the Campus Learning Center, pairs students trained as academic coaches with freshmen for individual or ongoing sessions. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Peer Academic Coaching lets VCU freshmen learn from the wisdom of fellow students

Campus Learning Center’s new program targets first-semester connections that promote academic and personal success.

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On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Ellie Crockett sat at a table in Hibbs Hall, Room B14, facing a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman. She asked him how things were going.

It was more than a casual question. Crockett, herself just a sophomore, is a coach, and she was there to help the freshman. They were meeting for their first Peer Academic Coaching session, a free service through which VCU students help their newest colleagues start the first semester strong – academically and personally.

Crockett, who is majoring in health, physical education and exercise science, was on the receiving end of coaching last spring during the program’s pilot semester. Now she is one of 31 PACs who have at least a 3.2 GPA and who offer concrete advice and friendly encouragement to VCU’s newest Rams during their transition to college.

“It’s a strength to be here,” Crockett said of freshmen taking advantage of the PAC program. “Academic coaching helped me in my classes a lot. I learned a lot, so I wanted to be a part of it. I learned how to really manage my time. I found that in managing my time, I had many more hours in the day than I thought that I did. I learned how to study.”

Peer Academic Coaching is a program of VCU’s Campus Learning Center, which is part of the Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success division. By filling out an intake form and making an appointment, freshmen can meet with PACs on weekdays or weekends, whether for a one-time visit or weekly sessions throughout the semester.

“How to be a student” is how CLC Director Michal Coffey describes the PAC program’s mission for mentees.

An additional resource for students

PACs do not replace the professional coaches who meet with students at any level in the CLC, but the program expands its coaching services. PACs, who work 10 to 12 hours per week and are paid hourly, apply for the role and get extensive ongoing training from professional coaches to build their own organizational skills.

“Our peer coaches do different things than our professional coaches do, and they relate to our students differently,” Coffey said. “Our professional coaches are probably a little bit more intensive. They work with our upperclass students who maybe need a little bit more support. But for a first-semester student, a lot of times all they need is somebody in their corner to support and guide them.”

Bridget Prince, the CLC’s associate director of academic coaching, said reaching out during a student’s first semester for Peer Academic Coaching is a proactive approach to the university experience.

“They haven’t had a chance to maybe develop some not-so-positive behaviors, and pro coaching may be a little more reactive,” Prince said. “Maybe you really struggled, and now you see that you need some support. And sometimes students come and just know, ‘I’m going to need this.’ It’s more like, ‘We’re going to build great habits from the start.’”

A small group of PACs conducted targeted outreach to incoming freshmen this summer, including sending postcards with personal notes and arranging Zoom sessions on topics such as “what I wish I knew before my first semester” and “study strategies.” PACs also are making phone calls to freshmen to invite them to sign up for coaching. By late August, 300 first-semester freshmen had signed up – that covers about half of the PAC roster’s capacity – and more are expected.

Since fall semester started, PACs have been going to staff meetings, attending trainings and doing dozens of classroom presentations about the CLC and topics such as time management, study strategies and goal setting.

“One student walked in and said, ‘I’ve been texting with Nevaeh,’” Prince said. “And she happened to be in there. It was really cool because that student knew that PAC and was excited to meet her.”

Good habits and making the most of time

Conversations between PACs and their mentees are friendly yet straightforward, almost businesslike, with the feel of an experienced older friend sharing wisdom about the freshman experience.

Handouts help students plan a weekly schedule that includes classes, studying, eating, rest and social times, so that little is left to chance. A learning system called the study cycle, instead of cramming, aims to help them master classroom materials.

“One thing that we really emphasize is not studying late in the day, which I used to do a lot, so I’ve stopped doing that,” Crockett said. “We also talk a lot about active studying rather than passive. So just randomly flipping through flash cards is not as beneficial as really being active in your study.”

A planning handout lets students break down assignments. An exam review form helps schedule work to be prepared for tests. A sleep tracker shows if they are keeping healthy habits. A syllabus matrix parses the key points, so coursework is not overlooked. On another form, students spell out goals for the semester.

Jayasree Allam, a senior chemistry major who was in the pilot PAC cohort last spring, is continuing her coaching role this year. She described the sense of accomplishment she and her mentees felt when they put advice into practice.

“I did learn a lot last semester just by interacting and working with students,” Allam said. “I might have been just a few years older than them, with my experience coming out of classes and things like that. But watching them taking the feedback that I had been giving them or whatever advice we discussed, then them implementing that and then actually benefiting from that, gave them a new sense of achievement. And they’re just so excited to see me because they know what they’re doing is working.”

Returning PAC Isla Abner, a senior biology major, makes sure students block out time for themselves to refuel. She sees students getting excited about the semester, setting up study times and office hours sessions, but she asks what might seem like an obvious question: When are they going to have lunch?

“I’ve seen some students who are going through difficult life situations. I’ve seen students where everything was going OK. They felt pretty on top of things. And some students that were getting used to college and maybe struggling a little with balancing everything,” Abner said. “That’s why I love doing this. I can work with people wherever they are, and I can connect with people who aren’t in my major.”

PAC Isabella Hanisian, a junior who is a health, physical education and exercise science major, said time management – “even if it’s scheduling downtime” – is crucial. It’s particularly helpful during exam periods, and the benefits extend beyond the classroom.

“If you try to stay one step ahead, either personally or in your career, it’s super-helpful just for everybody around you and also yourself to not be stressed out,” Hanisian said.

Driven by personal experience

Ian Anderson, the PAC program coordinator, continues to train PACs, observe sessions and provide feedback about their coaching skills. His passion for the initiative runs deep: He dropped out of college between his junior and senior years.

“I didn’t even know how to ask for help,” said Anderson, who later returned to school and completed undergraduate and master’s degrees. “I didn’t do myself any favors. But there also wasn’t anybody else out there really looking out for me the way that I could have maybe needed.”

He and his 31 PACs pursue their mission framed by questions Anderson poses from his own experience: “How do I be that intervention for people, or how do I create a program that’s going to be where people need it? How do I plug myself in and potentially save somebody from making the same mistakes I did?”

One key, according to PAC Travis Thomas, a junior health services major who also was in the pilot group, is positioning the coaching service not as a sign of weakness but one of strength and determination for freshmen.

“We help them as far as the resources that we have available, but also learning about themselves,” Thomas said. “That’s probably the most important part, what they bring to the table – and knowing their strengths, knowing their weaknesses, knowing what pushes them, what goals they have.”

It’s not just the freshman mentees who benefit from Peer Academic Coaching.

In last semester’s pilot, a standout moment for PAC Maysoon Daw-El-Beit, a senior psychology pre-med major, was when a student told her she was much more confident as a result of the coaching.

“They mentioned that they were so happy that they were working with a Black coach because they were a Black student and they felt like they really were able to connect with me on a different level,” Daw-El-Beit said.

“And it was a moment for me because I do want to work with the Black population in general, especially in medicine,” she said. “So to know that … this was something that resonated with them – that ‘I see someone like me who is able to achieve what I want to achieve, and now they’re able to help me’ – that was amazing.”

Daw-El-Beit tells mentees that the PAC process is not a beginning or end – it’s part of their evolution as a student and as an individual.

“The things that they learn in coaching are things that they are able to use outside of coaching, like making a schedule, working on procrastination and being more confident in your abilities,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful thing ever.”