Piper Center Spotlight: Peer Advisors
Often the first person a student sees when entering the Piper Center is another student. Known as peer advisors, these 20 to 25 juniors and seniors help their peers on such concrete tasks as writing résumés and cover letters, searching for an internship or job, and creating a LinkedIn profile. They also are trained in the less straightforward task of helping their peers with career exploration and discernment.
“Our peer advisors are the initial contact for many students,” says Thando Kunene ’13, an assistant director in the Piper Center who oversees the Peer Advisor program. “Some students feel a bit intimidated about visiting our office, and so we’ve found that having approachable, accessible peers as the face of the Piper Center is key to making all students comfortable.” To that end, Kunene selects 12 peer advisors each year — from about 80 applicants — who represent a broad range of majors, career interests, hometowns, and identities. “Representation is important because we want students to be able to see themselves reflected in who works in the Piper Center so that they can envision being comfortable using our resources.”
Peer advisors receive 30 hours of training prior to each academic year and participate in ongoing training and team-building exercises during the school year. They’re available for walk-ins or appointments from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. In 2018–19, they held 1,283 appointments with their peers. In addition to their advising roles, they work as project assistants with a Piper Center staff member, helping to support events, compile data, conduct research, develop resources, and greet visiting employers for the center’s industry events. They’ll often choose to assist a staff member who aligns with their interests, such as the center’s pre-health coach, who partners with peer advisors who are interested in careers in the health professions.
A former peer advisor herself, Kunene has firsthand knowledge of the important role that peer advisors play in the Piper Center’s success in reaching students. “A lot of our services are advertised word-of-mouth, and our positive reputation is upheld through what our peer advisors say about us,” she says. “They’re great ambassadors for our events and programs.”
Peer advisors also benefit from the skills they develop in their work at the Piper Center. Working on the front lines of vocational discernment, they have a leg up when it comes to navigating their own career path. In helping their peers, they have to be adept at articulating complex concepts, writing well, and assessing needs and then matching those needs to the appropriate resources or services. “No matter what field our peer advisors go into, these communication skills will serve them well throughout their careers,” Kunene says.
Maya Lehmann ’18
Refugee Resettlement Case Manager, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota
“As a peer advisor, I hoped to be as welcoming as possible to my peers, while connecting them to resources that helped them meet their goals.”
Many of the skills Maya Lehmann uses in her work as a refugee resettlement case manager for Lutheran Social Service — like empathy and working one-on-one with people — she developed as a peer advisor in the Piper Center.
“As a peer advisor, I hoped to be as welcoming as possible,” Lehmann says. “To listen to my peers, to understand their vulnerability in coming to us for help, and to reassure them that they weren’t alone. We’d connect them to resources that helped them meet their goals.”
Lehmann’s studies and interests at St. Olaf offered multiple ways in which her peers could connect with her. She earned a triple major in music, religion, and race and ethnic studies. She also was a four-year member of the St. Olaf Orchestra; co-director of Reaching Our Goals, a mentoring program matching Oles with middle school students; and a member of the Filipino Club.
Lehmann helped Thando Kunene plan Ole Social Impact, a networking event connecting students with alumni working in the social justice sector. She also participated in the Social Entrepreneurship Scholars program, interning at Daily Work, a nonprofit that guides and mentors job seekers.
“The Piper Center had an atmosphere of inspired energy and innovation,” she says. “I appreciated that the staff was always open to new ideas and students’ perspectives.”
As a case manager for refugees newly arrived in the United States, Lehmann helps her clients with everything from housing and employment to schooling and health care. “I connect them with resources and help them integrate into the community,” she says. “The best moments for me are when they don’t need me anymore.”
The job, like her peer advisor role, requires Lehmann to be empathetic to other people’s vulnerabilities and struggles. “Obviously, the stressors on refugees are very different from those affecting the students I worked with at the Piper Center, but I see parallels in how I can be welcoming and kind and can help to calm their anxieties,” she says. Eventually, she hopes to parlay her experiences in refugee support into clinical social work focused on clients dealing with mental health issues.