Listening Up: Peer Listeners Support Fellow Students

Benjamin Snyder
Managing Editor

Tucked away in a secluded corner of Pearlstone is a space designated for listening and confidentiality. Called the safe space, the room serves as the destination for the college’s peer listening program for which students serve as a support system for their fellow Gophers.

The 18 peer listeners receive in-depth training, including over 60 hours in the space, as part of acceptance to the program. In its third year, the service is co-directed by founder Roshelle Kades ’10 and chaplain Cynthia Terry.

Peer Listening co-director Roshelle Kades poses in the Safe Space, where students can talk to peer listeners. (Photo: Annie Cutchen).

Peer Listening co-director Roshelle Kades poses in the Safe Space, where students can talk to peer listeners. (Photo: Annie Cutchen).

Using the logo, a conglomeration of Chinese characters, representing the words eyes, ears, attention and heart, the program’s purpose is to “create a service where students feel like they can come to someone who is genuinely listening to them in a very complete way,” said Kades.

In an attempt to ensure the program’s effectiveness for the Goucher community, the former graduate assistant and current Health and Wellness Coordinator said the decision to base the program on in-person interaction is key. As opposed to over the phone, the peer listeners meet with student callers and sustain a “fundamental feeling” of comfort in-person “because so much can be lost on the phone,” Kades explained.

Terry mirrored Kades’ comments about the importance of in-person interaction for the peer listeners. “Part of why I really love that about our program is that so much of communication is no longer actually sitting with a person in the room actually having a conversation,” she said. “It’s mediated by having a phone conversation, or texting, or Skype. Quite often, when someone needs to talk, it’s because they feel isolated or alienated so to have an actual person is important.”

For Goucher, Terry said that the peer listening program’s set-up “feels like it suits us because there is quite a culture of caring here and openness, [although] I think there are plenty of people here who feel isolated or alienated.”

The safe space, therefore, plays an important role in fostering ease in conversation between student and peer listener. “I don’t even really think of it as the safe space,” said Terry. “I think of it as the peer listening space. That’s what it feels like. It’s always viewed as a place that’s set apart and a place you can talk about hard things.”

About the type of topics discussed, Terry said, “Mostly, I think people come because they’re trying to process something and they want to talk to people other than a friend and it’s night and the staff aren’t around, and they might not want to talk to a staff person anyway.”

Students may come to a peer listener to speak with them about “issues around them and their families, trying to figure out things about classes, [or] how they want to live their lives here,” said Terry.

Kades mentioned that students may also use the peer listening program for “something feeling like a crisis.” She continued, explaining the “first place [they might] like to start is peer listening” as it could  “feel like the most comfortable starting point” for the student.

Marley Witham ’13, a psychology major who has been with the program since the first applicants were accepted and trained, said the reason that she became a peer listener was to help the community’s efforts to support students. “Sometimes there’s a point when, if something’s really close, it’s hard to talk about with your friends, and it’s easy to open up to a stranger,” she said. “I thought it was a really good idea.”

Originally planned to “address issues of sexual violence and partner violence,” Kades worked with professors Rick Pringle, Marguerite Hoyt and Joan Burton on an independent study with other students in what would eventually become the peer listening program of today.

While putting together a proposal for the initial program, Kades said, “We realized a couple things. One, while most programs call their programs peer counseling, we had a preference toward the idea of peer listening and taking the focus away from students acting as counselors.” This set-up could be “beneficial,” she realized, allowing the distressed student to “have an experience of feeling like [they’re] really being heard and really being listened to.”

The other realization was “that [the set-up for the program] made a lot more sense particularly for our community to broaden and not just focus on trying to support survivors of sexual and domestic violence, but to really try to support the whole community,” said Kades.

At first, the peer listeners did not expect to receive more than one call in the first year of existence based on advice from other programs. She explained, “We actually did get a call the first semester, but not many.”

Since then, there’s been steady growth. She continued, “from semester to semester in terms of the volume of calls, and I’m hopeful that will continue to happen.”

Terry praised the peer listeners’ commitment with the program. “I have such admiration and respect for those who commit to it. It’s a big commitment of energy and time and I hope they stick with it,” she said. “They give so much. I think we’ve all really learned and grown through it, but they’ve given a lot.”

The peer listeners are available to speak with students seven days a week from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. at (443) 632-7799.

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