A 2009 study by the Associated Press shows that 85 percent of college students feel stressed daily. Cook Counseling Center, a department of the Division of Student Affairs, has a program that they hope will relieve some of that stress.

The Peer Assistants for Learning program – or PALs – trains students to give presentations on campus that deal with issues that face many college students, including stress, time management, and study skills. PALs give interactive presentations to groups such as residence halls, student organizations, and classes. Charlotte Amenkhienan, coordinator of outreach services and education for Cook Counseling Center, said that the program has already benefited hundreds of students by teaching them healthy ways of dealing with stress.

In addition to these issues, PALs also emphasize the services available at Cook and how to access them. Amenkhienan said that she wants students to know when they should seek help. “There is a lot of stigma attached to the use of mental health services,” she said. She hopes that hearing about the services from their fellow students, rather than professionals, will help de-stigmatize the services.

Stephanie Giunta, a 2012 psychology graduate of Virginia Tech who participated in the PALs program throughout college, said that using student volunteers is an effective way to promote the mental health services available on campus. “Cook Counseling Center is a resource for students, and getting college students involved in its services is a great way to get the word out to our peers,” Giunta said. “Even if it’s just a simple conversation like your friend asking you ‘What is a PAL?’ it’s an opportunity to start a conversation about important mental health issues and opportunities for seeking help,” she said.

There are six to eight PALs per year. The program accepts applications all year and selects the applicants who are best suited for the program.  Amenkhienan said she looks for students who have good study skills, enthusiasm, and a commitment to the program long-term.

The program has a lot to offer to the PALs, too. It allows them to build skills that will benefit them after graduation, like public speaking, organization, teaching, and interpersonal skills. “Professionally, PALs is a great opportunity. It has provided me with networking opportunities and professional references. I’ve also gotten to learn more about what being a psychologist in an academic setting would be like,” said Giunta. Besides building up their resumes, though, it also provides an opportunity to help the campus community. Giunta said the program has given her a great sense of personal satisfaction. Guinta currently works for a non-profit organization called Youth Villages as a teacher-counselor for children at a residential treatment facility in Portland, Ore.

During the spring semester, the program partnered with another campus organization, Leadership Tech, to put on an event that was very successful. PALs and Leadership Tech hosted Virginia Tech’s first ever “Positivity Day,” a carnival on the drillfield. The carnival’s games, activities, and prizes drew in more than 500 students. The College of Veterinary Medicine even brought in puppies for students to pet. Amenkhienan says events like this teach students positive, healthy ways to deal with the stress of college.

Amenkhienan said that the idea of using student volunteers was fairly new when the started the program in 2003. Now, though, she says it is a trend among organizations on Virginia Tech’s campus and other campuses. Career Services’ Career Associates Program and Schiffert Health Center’s Health Education and Awareness Team are among the various services on campus that use student volunteers in outreach programs.



Written by Allison Hedrick of Chatham, Va., a senior majoring in communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
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