We recently interviewed Sean Schochet, upper school Science of Mind teacher, and the peer consulting team in the high school to hear about the warmth, friendship and support this outstanding group of young people offer Nueva high school and middle school students. In the interview below, Sean and a few of the upper school peer consultants share how they help students deal with stress by active listening, offering empathy and sensitivity in a confidential setting, always supported by adult teachers. The aim is to help students feel confident, connected, and able to deal with the social, emotional, and academic challenges they encounter every day. Nueva’s Peer Consulting Program also aims to provide practical experience for students interested in providing peer support, as they lead group conversations, one-on-one consulting, and positive mental health programming.
Judith Worrall: Thank you very much for your time answering my questions today. It’s great to talk to you all about the peer consulting program and its inception. Could we start by exploring the history of the peer consulting program? How long has it been in operation? Why did the school’s SEL team decide to add peer advising to its program?
Sean Schochet: It’s awesome to have an opportunity to talk about our program and the wonderful peer consultants at Nueva. The Peer Consulting Program has been in operation since 2018 in collaboration with the Nueva Counseling department and Star Vista, a San Mateo County counseling and crisis center. Peer-counseling programs are increasingly common in high schools and aim to combat the concerning trend of increased mental health crises among young adults. In 2019–20, we decided to advance the mission by bringing positive mental health programming to Nueva students. This school year has seen more opportunities for participation, including at least one event a week for most of the first semester. This has also been the first year that we have crossed divisions to support our middle school community members.
JW: It’s really interesting to hear how the program developed. Why do you think peer consulting is an important program at Nueva?
Gigi S. ’23: Peer consulting is important because it provides a space that is a student-focused and student-run addition to counseling at Nueva. Offering one-on-one and group sessions, we aim to support folks from all backgrounds in a safe, non-judgemental space.
Grace F. ’23: Peer consulting is also important because it builds the bridge between the students and the help that they need for their mental health. Talking to an adult, whether a therapist or school counselor, can be very intimidating, and we are here as a resource for the students.
JW: Can you talk more about what you need to do to be a good peer consultant? For example, what qualities are needed??
Ana I. ’21: The most important qualities in a peer consultant are empathy and the ability to truly listen. Empathizing with students is important because it helps us to break down the barrier of intimidation—empathy helps students feel like they’re not alone and it makes them more confident in sharing. The most important part of being a peer consultant is anticipating students’ needs. To me, listening as a peer consultant means figuring out what people need. Sometimes, people just want to vent and be told that they are valid. Other times, people want specific advice.
JW: That sounds like you offer something very significant to the school’s student body. I understand that there is a formal application process to become a peer consultant. What does the process of applying to be a peer consultant entail?
Jackson B. ’23: Toward the end of the spring semester in May, applications for peer consultants are released. Students lwho apply for the posts complete questionnaires, and then they have a one-on-one interview with Sean Schochet, the organizer of the peer consultants. Additionally, Sean collects feedback from teachers in order to make decisions about selecting which students will be accepted t into the program. I was very happy to make it through the program and be chosen.
JW: Can you talk more about what the training was like for you? What did you think was especially useful—for you and also for the people you will work with?
JB: Training was a mandatory two-day course the week before school started taught by Sean this year and by Star Vista in previous years. We learned and practiced managing individual and group sessions, exploring ways to make people feel comfortable, accepted, and not alone. We learned about various resources that our school, county, and state, provide to help the mental well-being of students. It was especially useful to learn how to respond to the awkward responses someone might give, when they express something really personal or ask a hard question.
JW: Do you think there are any disadvantages to peer consulting—or did you have any reservations about your ability to offer the needed qualities? Did you find the training helpful in overcoming this?
Cate R. ’22: Overall, the two-day training session prepares us well. We learn how to listen actively and give advice. We also learned other skills that are crucial for peer consultants, regardless of whether we have prior experience with similar programs. One area that was difficult for me at first—and still is a little bit—is being able to distance myself and my well-being from what can be very emotional issues being discussed. I’d say that this is an essential skill for peer consulting—having the ability to empathize with others and hear their problems without internalizing them and having them take a toll on you.
AI: I think the idea of peer consulting can be slightly daunting because mental health issues can sometimes turn into situations where someone’s safety is at risk. For me, training was most helpful in that it helped us understand what our role as peer consultants was, and was super clear about how we could go about resolving a situation where we felt that a student needed more support than our roles offer, or was unsafe, by accessing the support of the trained staff around us.
JW: What are some highlights of your time as a peer consultant?
Aime C. ’23: Group consulting is a wonderful aspect of the role: in these groups, we can create a safe place to share and listen to others in our community. Our job is to apply some structure and guidance to the group consulting, yet it is an open conversation usually pivoting around a topic or common experience among students within our community. We see it as a resource that anyone can use (including us!) and it is a helpful tool to also ask for advice/strategies from other attendees.
Malaika M. ’22: My biggest highlight was running my first group session geared towards new transfer students at Nueva. This session was so important to me because I know what it was like being new at Nueva and working to make connections—which is especially hard over Zoom—and I was happy I could provide guidance and insight on an issue I know I struggled with personally. During a 45-minute session, I was able to make so many meaningful connections through deep and authentic conversation.
JW: Thank you all for your time exploring peer consultancy in Nueva and the wonderful opportunities for support you offer to the students around you. I look forward to hearing more about your work in the near future.