NU Declassified: A peer adviser’s real perspective

Erica Schmitt, Reporter

NU Declassified gets the inside scoop on what it’s like to be a peer adviser at Northwestern and some of the critiques PAs have about the experience. 


JAMES CAVANAUGH-GIALLORETO: I think the PA community just takes the best of the people on campus and just puts them all in one place. 


ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at the University. That was Communication sophomore James Cavanaugh-Gialloreto, a second-year peer adviser, or PA for short.

ERICA SCHMITT: PAs are mentors for all incoming undergraduate students at NU. They lead dialogues, provide support with resources and help new students navigate their transition onto campus and into University life. Associate Director for Student Transition Experiences Michael Gonzalez said coming into college looks different for everyone.

MICHAEL GONZALEZ: There’s the highs and lows of that transition and … what it looks like to come be a part of the Northwestern community. If this is a community that is more diverse than you’ve ever lived in, or if this is a community that is the least diverse, how do you navigate those experiences?

ERICA SCHMITT: Gonzalez said the PA model at NU makes students feel more comfortable in that transition. This is because PAs have been in a new student’s position and can be honest about the experience.

ERICA SCHMITT: McCormick freshman Lena Sylvan is one of those students. Sylvan said she wanted to join a similar program in high school and never got the chance. Now, as a first-year PA, she can take on that responsibility.

LENA SYLVAN: I really appreciate the student mentors that I’ve had unofficially from this past year and even throughout high school. Switching up the role, I guess now I’m excited to repeat that and, like, continue sharing wisdom.

ERICA SCHMITT: The application process to become a PA includes an essay, an interview and some team-building activities. Gonzalez said the selection committee looks for students who, more than anything, really care about helping students.

MICHAEL GONZALEZ: There’s not a specific “Here are the answers” that we need or that we want to see from each applicant. We want people to be able to provide different experiences and insight. 

ERICA SCHMITT: A common highlight of many PA experiences is the long-lasting bonds they formed with their students and other PAs. Cavanaugh-Gialloreto was nominated by his former PA for the role and found a community from PA training camp, a weeklong PA preparation for Wildcat Welcome.

JAMES CAVANAUGH-GIALLORETO: We don’t really have a choice but to become really close. And I think that’s the beautiful part of it, because everyone is coming from so many different majors. It’s a very, like, different group of people that you’re meeting. You’re meeting people outside of your extracurricular areas and your academic areas.

ERICA SCHMITT: A large part of the PA experience is also thinking about what you’ve liked or disliked about the University. Both Sylvan and Cavanaugh-Gialloreto have been doing a lot of reflecting so they can offer the most insightful advice to new students.

ERICA SCHMITT: Cavanaugh-Gialloreto said after thinking about what he could have done differently the first time, he is changing some of his welcoming techniques this year. Last year he attempted to make them feel like he was their friend, but he said it was-

JAMES CAVANAUGH-GIALLORETO: -a really unrealistic goal. Because the more I reach out and want to spend time with my students, the less opportunities they have to branch out and make their own friend groups.

ERICA SCHMITT: Cavanaugh-Gialloreto also wants to be transparent about campus resources and is educating himself about other, better options for students. For example, he is looking into other therapy options that are experienced with helping people of certain identities but are not directly connected to the University.

JAMES CAVANAUGH-GIALLORETO: As a PA, I’m conditioned to, like, represent the school in a positive light. But I think something I’m definitely trying to do different this year is be a lot more honest and be a lot more, “Hey, things aren’t great here sometimes, but we have other support systems you can look toward.”

ERICA SCHMITT: Like Cavanaugh-Gialloreto, Sylvan wants to be open about the less-positive parts of NU, particularly the difficulty of classes in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and fighting imposter syndrome as a woman in STEM.

LENA SYLVAN: If you’re a girl, you’re going to be in an engineering class, it is scary. It feels very real your first day of classes but, like, you learn to love it. 

ERICA SCHMITT: While the University tries to perfect the new-student experience, the PA system isn’t flawless. The PA experience is heavily critiqued on campus for many reasons, including the selectiveness of the application process and its highly rigorous demand of PAs. The educational material it requires the incoming students to watch is also critiqued.

JAMES CAVANAUGH-GIALLORETO: It’s not authentic. It feels like we’re checking the boxes by having the dialogue about social justice and inclusion. We’re gonna make everyone look at their demographics real quick and then we’re gonna ask one reflective question, and then break and go get lunch.

ERICA SCHMITT: Cavanaugh-Gialloreto doesn’t like some of the Wildcat Welcome experiences, but he still hopes to make a difference.

JAMES CAVANAUGH-GIALLORETO: As for why I’m stepping up to represent a school that I don’t agree with 100% of the time, it only motivates more change. I feel like there’s so much room for improvement, and I want to help cultivate that. 

ERICA SCHMITT: Gonzalez said the Office of Student Transition Experiences listens to feedback from PAs like Cavanaugh-Gialloreto and is making changes. One of these changes is in the pace of Wildcat Welcome itself, which is known for being a heavily packed schedule.

MICHAEL GONZALEZ: Being a student here, things just move very quickly. And there’s not always time to pause, but from a structural way and from an office perspective, how do we build in space for when we need to pause? 

ERICA SCHMITT: Sylvan said she thinks there should be more work in representing different sexualities, races and income levels. But she thinks Gonzalez’s welcome team has been listening to the feedback.

LENA SYLVAN: We just had an end-of-school-year wrap-up. And the international PAs, the IPAs, gave a whole presentation on how to make international students feel the most welcome as possible. 

ERICA SCHMITT: The IPAs urged other PAs to think about how to include all students in different ways, such as alternatives to mentioning pop culture references. This can isolate international students from conversations, and Sylvan said she is glad she learned more.


ERICA SCHMITT: The PA experience is different for everyone, but the intention of peer advisers remains the same.

JAMES CAVANAUGH-GIALLORETO: We all are signing up to help people. And I think even if sometimes that can be confused with advocating for the school, we’re all giving up our summers and our Spring Quarters to train to help 10-20 students we haven’t even met yet. I just think that says a lot about the type of people that sign up to do this. 

ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The multimedia editor is Joanne Haner, the managing editors are Audrey Hettleman, Charlotte Varnes and Yiming Fu, and the summer editor in chief is Isabel Funk. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ericaschmitt318

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