Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the May issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Karen Fernau
When Sheila Miller was struggling with an English assignment, the 58-year-old online learner sought help from another student 38 years younger and nearly 2,000 miles away.
Her lifeline was Felicia Roberts, a Grand Canyon University senior and learning advocate, or LEAD, who is part of an innovative program that pairs high-achieving, 20-something students on campus with online distance learners age 40 and over.
In several phone conversations, Roberts guided Miller through the nuts and bolts of writing citations and research techniques for required papers. Equally important, the 20-year-old Sociology major turbo-blasted Miller’s confidence.
“Felicia’s bionic, able to help me with all kinds of work and keep me motivated,” said Miller, a part-time caterer in Detroit and mother of seven working toward a degree in Christian Studies.
“Working with Felicia makes me feel like I belong back in school and, although I am far away, that I really am a part of GCU. With her help, I know I will succeed.”
That, according to Trish Anderson, program manager for Student Development and Outreach, is exactly what the LEAD program is designed to accomplish.
“Our learning advocates are more than just good with content. They are like great balls of sunshine, following GCU’s mission of serving and supporting,” she said.
“LEADs are Christian-hearted students who let online students know that they are here to walk alongside them.”
The Roberts-Miller relationship reflects a paradigm shift in academic assistance. The traditional formula pairs older, experienced teachers with younger, eager learners. LEAD upends the norm.
Today at GCU, tech-savvy, brainiac millennials are offering English and math help to Generation X, Baby Boomers and The Greatest Generation, many out of school for decades and newcomers to digital learning.
“The last time I took a class, it was with paper and pen in a classroom,” Miller said.
Many of GCU’s 60,000-plus online students also are returning to school while juggling jobs and kids. That’s one of the reasons why learning advocates must complete a two-week training course on how best to teach and encourage.
One must-learn lesson: no negative language.
“Content is important, but so is support,” Anderson said. “We never tell students, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Can’t do that.’ Our goal is to always be encouraging.”
For example, instead of asking students if they need help, learning advocates ask a simple question. How are you doing?
“The language we use is very important. We know that asking for help can be intimidating, and we want students to know that we are on their side,” Roberts said.
As with Miller, she often talks to online students about their families, their faith and the reasons they enrolled in GCU.
“So many students touch me with their stories, their drive to return to college,” she said. “Hopefully I’ve touched them as well.”
To full-time online instructors, LEAD is just another example of GCU’s unwavering commitment to distance learners.
“LEADs can be the difference between failing and succeeding. They reach out early and often to our students, pairing technology natives with technology immigrants,” said Jacob Aroz, full-time instructor with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS).
“The relationship is working really well.”
Starts with English and math
The LEAD program for 40-and-over online students was launched last June by the Learning Lounge, the heralded GCU program — led by Executive Director Joe Veres — that provides free academic assistance to both GCU students and K-12 students attending nearby schools. Ten of the Learning Lounge’s staff of 75 “LEAD”ers are assigned to the new online service.
Their assistance focuses on entry-level English and math, two building-block subjects that returning students must master before enrolling in additional classes. Learning advocates help students in 30-minute telephone sessions and, when necessary, with screen-sharing technologies.
The program operates as a two-way street. Online students can call to schedule appointments, and online instructors can flag students who need help.
GCU’s full-time online teaching staff and learning advocates work closely together, sharing information and insight in a coordinated effort to help online students succeed.
Online instructors also offer one-on-one help to students, but many are more comfortable working with other students, even those decades younger.
“LEADs can get more in-depth than we can, and students really appreciate help coming from a peer who understands what they are going through,” said Thomas Dyer, a CHSS associate professor. “It’s a labor of love.”
LEADs’ hours also make it convenient for time-crunched students. The program operates from 8 a.m. to midnight Arizona time Monday through Thursday.
And, unlike many academic-assistance programs that charge by the hour, LEAD is free.
This summer, LEAD will expand its services to include two-minute videos that address 10 questions online students often ask.
For Miller, however, LEAD offers so much more than academic support. She calls the students her “superheroes.”
“I get emotional talking about GCU and Felicia,” she said. “They are like family to me. God pointed me to GCU, and they are keeping me there.”
Contact Karen Fernau at (602) 639-8344 or email@example.com.