Peer Counselors: Listeners and a Vital Link

Peer counseling was born 25 years ago, when Sue Carlson, then head counselor at Deerfield, recognized that students often feel more comfortable talking about their concerns with another student rather than with an adult. At present, 16 dedicated students, eight juniors and eight seniors, equally divided between boys and girls, serve as peer counselors at Deerfield. Counselors make a two-year commitment to the program, and are trained by the Health Center staff in basic counseling skills, the range of referrals available to students at Deerfield, and the issues that impact their fellow student’s physical, emotional and social well being. 

According to Kristin Loftus, who supervises the program, peers counselors act both as supportive listeners and as a “vital link” to the services provided by the Health Center. The training the counselors receive enables them to help their Deerfield classmates to talk about a variety of issues, including homesickness, stress, relationship troubles, family problems, depression, substance abuse, or eating disorders. Although no records are kept, Mrs. Loftus estimates that about 25 to 30 percent of students seek out the support of a peer counselor at some point during their time at Deerfield. Not surprisingly, counselors find their services in highest demand during exams, team formation, and transition time between vacation and school.

Students can find a peer counselor on duty in the peer counseling office in the basement of the Health Center from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. The counselors also maintain a website where students can seek and receive support anonymously. Peer counselors make themselves available to meet with students individually or in groups if requested to do so, and they also serve as a referral for faculty as needed. Juniors and seniors can find a peer counselor “down the hall” in their dorms, as all counselors commit to live in, or, in the case of day students, be affiliated with, an upper class dorm. This gives older students access to the same type of support that proctors provide in freshman/sophomore dorms. Freshmen, however, also meet with peer counselors twice a month in small group sessions that take place in the dorms during the fall and winter term. These meetings buttress the work of the proctors, and serve as an introduction to the Deerfield health education program, which continues into sophomore year with the Health Issues course requirement.

While peer counselors commit to respect the privacy and confidentiality of their fellow students, they are not allowed to promise that they will not share information with the Health Center staff should a student pose a threat to themselves or others. According to Dr. Stuart Bicknell, Coordinator of Counseling at Deerfield, the term peer “counselor” might be better termed peer “listener” as peer counselors are not expected to provide professional counseling, but to be good listeners, to let students know that their concerns are being heard, and to refer students to the appropriate resources when needed. To this end, Mrs. Loftus notes that the peer counselors have proven to be very good at sensing when a student is at risk and at getting that student to an appropriate adult.

The selection and training process for peer counselors is quite rigorous. Students must submit an application form in March of their sophomore year, and then participate in group interviews with current peer counselors during the first week of the spring term. Faculty, staff, and peers from the sophomore class contribute to the application process, but the current peer counselors make the final decision as to who will join their ranks.

Training is also demanding. Peer counselors train for two hours per night for six weeks during the spring term of their sophomore year, and again during the spring of their junior year. Despite the demands of training, and the tremendous time commitment, a graduate who had been a peer counselor while at Deerfield found it to have been an extremely rewarding experience.

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