Martinez: What I learned as a Peer Adviser

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

While I was nervous to sign up to become a Peer Adviser last year, I was extremely excited when I received my phone call and email that I was accepted. My PAs from freshman year were extremely influential, friendly and inspiring — their kindness encouraged me to apply in the first place.

There was no doubt in my mind that the position would come with a lot of work. In addition to the (newly tightened) schedule for Wildcat Welcome, PAs would have to go through a lot of training to get ready for the incoming first-year and transfer students, much of it requiring self-reflection and vulnerability.

Being a PA certainly brought its ups and downs when it came to my preparedness to lead a small group of students through a brutal Wildcat Welcome schedule. Additionally, my ability to regulate my mental wellness while caring for the needs of my first-year Medill group certainly wavered. At times, I wanted to just curl up in a ball on my bed until school started (on a Thursday? Wild.)

But beyond the amazing support network I discovered, what got me through the two weeks before classes started was all the self-discovery I went through along the way.

New Student and Family Programs dedicates a great deal of our training time to reflection and exploration of both ourselves and our Northwestern experience. All students went through Wildcat Welcome at some point in their NU career. A small fraction apply to experience it one, two or even three more times after that.

Going into the training process, I was fairly comfortable with some parts of my identity, but still struggling to organize my thoughts after my turbulent freshman year. Writing down and discussing my high school senior summer to first-year transition experience with other PAs was difficult, and I found it hard to classify things that had happened to me as validly hard or transformative, especially when it seemed like other people had equally or more difficult entrances into this university. The activity was certainly not set up to be a competition, yet I still felt my brain inch toward the comparison model: yeah, my spring quarter was tough, but theirs was way worse.

But as our board group got to know each other better, and the awkwardness of discussing heavy topics like identity and group dynamics on this campus dissipated, I slowly realized how much I was learning about myself along the way. I found myself exposed to many views that I shared, and, surprisingly, many that I didn’t. I embraced all of it, the tension and the lighthearted moments. I wanted to lean into this process and gather as much information as I could.

Opening myself up to people of many backgrounds was incredibly rewarding. We were dedicated to viewing the training as a learning experience — in “speaking our first draft” and being vulnerable, we allowed ourselves to be shaped by our peers, accept our mistakes, and grow as both individuals and as a team.

But despite my many hours of training, I was not prepared for everything. Controlling my emotions and remaining an upbeat person was difficult. As PAs, our primary focus is ensuring our students have a smooth and valuable transition to this university, and providing a solid support system for them. I did not expect the five days to simultaneously be so draining and empowering as my co-PA and I led our group through the orientation activities. Because of this year’s abbreviated schedule, I barely had any time to process the week’s events, much less the upcoming school year.

I did feel helpless at times — my mental health felt like the roller coasters my students rode at Six Flags. But as I pushed through the week, I felt strengthened by the dialogues I faced months prior. I realized that I had been through a lot freshman year, and I came out of all of it a more self-aware person. By being forced to examine myself in the context of my first year in order to better advise my students, I somewhat unknowingly discovered a lot about how I handle stress and obstacles.

Going through the PA process definitively changed my NU experience for the better. The best part of it was the honesty expected of my peers and me — we wouldn’t be able to effectively guide our students unless we understood ourselves. Taking part in an intentional space like PA training is something I would never give up.

I highly encourage students here to seek out engaging spaces and hold similar intentional group dialogues. While this may not always be feasible, self-reflection is something that is not valued enough in undergraduate life and beyond. It’s hard to be a leader, like many of us aspire to be, when we don’t understand how our life experiences shape us and help us grow. The PA process taught me that all our experiences are valid for our growth, and that taking a little time out of our busy schedules to reflect is essential for our self and community well-being.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.