C. Comfort Shields, Student, School of Psychology; Elizabeth E. Wierba, Student, School of Psychology; Juliet L. Hatcher-Ross; Steven J. Hanley; Sherry L. Hatcher, Faculty, School of Psychology
This study investigated the longitudinal influence of college peer counselor training on the lives of the trainees, with particular focus on communication skills and career choice. Considering that Rogerian-based peer counselor training is particularly well suited for the developmental capacities of college students, identifying the most advantageous training modalities is fundamental to ensuring their helpfulness to others, as well as continuous and positive sequelae for the trainees themselves. Identifying the optimal training modalities, both in context of college-age development and for the field of peer counseling, is fundamental to ensuring that peer programs are constructed in most beneficial ways that assure ongoing, positive development for trainees as well as those they serve. Peer counselor training programs are increasingly viewed as useful components of academic and social university life. However, much of the literature on this topic has focused on what the training has meant to the peer recipients rather than to the peer facilitators. Even less is known about the way those trained in peer helping skills may perceive influences of that training on their personal and professional development in subsequent years or how subsequent experience may be affected when practice paradigms are part of the training model. Altogether, there is scant literature that considers the bidirectional learning process in peer counselor training. In other words, the emphasis has typically been placed on students being trained to “give” a service to the peers in their community, rather than also focusing on what the peer counselors “take away” from the experience.
The primary goal of this mixed design (Morgan, 1998) study was to test for long-term effects of peer helping courses for college graduates, with particular regard to their retrospective accounts of communication skills and career choice. One hundred-nine participants included college graduates from a large Midwestern university who a) had completed a peer training theory course (PT); b) took a psychology peer practicum (PP) that included supervised practice with actual clients; and c) had concentrated in psychology but took neither peer counseling course (comparison group: CG). Results from our analyses supported three hypotheses, which were statistically significant with regard to positive effects on post-graduate communication skills and post-graduate career choices, in the direction of the peer counseling practice course having most positive effect, the peer theory course the next highest effect and the CG reporting least effects for these variables. Thus, the results of the first two hypotheses (and hypothesis four) may be summarized as: PP>PT>CG. A fourth hypothesis, predicting higher performance in this same direction on two scales of the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity test was not confirmed. This could have been due to the possibility that the IRI measures aptitude rather than actualized empathy, or because there may be ceiling effect for empathy after a certain point in terms of an individual’s achieving perspective taking and empathic concern. Results and discussion of findings include narrative data that illuminates the statistical findings.
In addition to adding further support to our hypotheses, two themes emerged from our qualitative data analyses. The first was psychological mindedness, which refers to an individual’s ability to understand motives, attitudes and characteristics of others (Hatcher et al, 1990) and themselves. The second was an engagement with and the memorable nature of the PP course. Psychological mindedness was found most strongly in the PP group narratives. However, to a lesser degree, increased self-awareness, which is a component of psychological mindedness, was also demonstrated in the PT group narratives. The theme of engagement with the PP course was established through descriptions of the special nature of the practicum course in its combination of hands-on experience and academic training. The results of our analyses illustrate a comprehensive pattern of positive peer counselor training effects on post-graduates’ lives, particularly for the training that combined theory and supervised practice with actual clients. This effect was reported by post-graduate participants as related to the unique nature of the peer training courses completed years earlier. Far from being merely an achievement of the sum of skills mastered, our findings suggest that the combination of theory, practice, and intra-course relationships, provided the trainees with a foundation that they could build on, often long after they had graduated from college. In looking at the ways in which post-graduates remembered and were touched by their retrospective remembrances of peer counselor training as undergraduates, we find dynamic examples of the possibilities for interpolation of peer counselor training into one’s life, goals, and career. For each student’s peer counselor training, there is the likelihood of lifelong, positive sequelae for self and other understanding. Although each respondent’s experience differs to some degree, clear patterns emerged from our study that we believe may serve to impact future educational program designs, at the college level and beyond.