Who knows better the challenges of being a freshman than a student who has just been through it?

It's the premise for the peer leader program in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) that provides learning support for new students while building a community of undergraduates that encourage each other.

Matt Shuman has been with the program since its inception when, as a graduate student in EECS, he was slated with the task of starting the peer leaders program. He knew from personal experience how such a program could help.

Instructor Matt Shuman and peer leader, Carissa Pocock, help students in class
Peer leader, Carissa Pocock, assisted in one of Matt Shuman's sessions.

Shuman, now an instructor in EECS, recalled a time when he was an undergraduate struggling with a computer programming concept. Looking around the computer lab he found an upper classman he could ask for help. Or so he thought.

"He said, flat-out, ‘No, I'm not helping you.' And there was no one else I could go to for help. I didn't know any older students," Shuman said.

Shuman's feeling of isolation is one that Terri Fiez, hoped no other electrical and computer engineering or computer science student would face. "Giving these students support in their first year, when they are learning the environment, experiencing new technical challenges and trying to build confidence, is critical," she said.

Although Shuman initially tried assisting the students himself, he quickly realized that the best mentors would be students who had just learned the material.

"There comes a point after you've taken all the senior level courses that the elementary foundations behind engineering become common sense, and it's harder to identify with what the students don't understand," he said.

So, EECS sought out stand-out sophomores and juniors for the task of being teaching assistants in the entry level electrical and computer engineering classes. Among the first group of peer leaders was Ryan Albright, who Shuman had mentored through his first year and involved in the robotics club. Albright was also a teaching assistant for computer science the next year when the program expanded. He said near-peers as mentors are important for other reasons too.

"The program allows students to get comfortable here. It's their first year away from mom and dad for most of them, and adults are still scary," he said.

And although he has found all the instructors to be very approachable, he said it is easier for freshman to get help from someone just a year or two older and friendships develop more naturally. Many build lasting relationships. Albright said that even though he is now a graduate student, he still gets questions from students he mentored years earlier.

That's just what Fiez was hoping for. "This is a way to help connect the freshman with sophomores and juniors. Having that network is essential to being successful. In terms of building community, it's been incredible."

And it's not just the freshman that benefit. The peer leaders are put through a leadership and communication boot camp. They further develop these skills through mentoring while solidifying their knowledge of the material.

Shuman said, "The key thing is giving the students ownership. I think that is something that OSU really excels at: getting the right people in the right positions, giving them the right resources, and then letting them do a good job. It's enabling people to help other people, and that's what I think we're doing well here."

The program includes summer internships for students to improve the labs. So, for those peer leaders that participate, not only does the material remain fresh in their minds, but they become active participants in shaping the curriculum.

But, the power of the program is that it reaches beyond the classroom. Taj Morton admits to feeling a bit lost when he first arrived on campus, a shy freshman not knowing anyone. But because of the peer leaders program, he had a vastly different experience than Shuman.

Just as Shuman had mentored Albright, Albright mentored Morton. Albright not only encouraged Morton to join the robotics club but convinced him to run for a position on the executive committee. Something Morton had never done before.

"He trained me for becoming president and vice president and the different roles that I've had there. He's pretty much taught me how to be a leader," Morton said.

Morton became a peer leader, so that torch was passed down from Albright too. He attributes part of the success of the program to the fact that the peer leaders seek out the positions because they really want to help the students, and thus often go beyond their official obligations.

He recalled spending a few four-hour sessions with a group of students that could not understand Java programming. "At first, they really had no idea what was going on, but then after I helped them that one term they pretty much took care of themselves. It was really cool to see them eventually get all the way through the computer science requirements," he said.

EECS looks forward to expanding the program with a grant from Tektronix for $50,000. The money will go toward expanding the leadership development to include all EECS students.

"Like most companies, Tektronix really values the skills associated with leadership," Fiez said. "Combining these leadership skills with the technical skills gives our students a winning combination. Our goal is to prepare all our students to become leaders that will shape our future and make a positive impact on our world. So, this is another step to getting there."