Rachel de Rosset and Veronica McGraw

How Peer Tutors Contribute to the Writing Culture at Catholic U

By Rachel de Rosset (B.A. English ‘19)

When I began as a freshman at Catholic U, I had no idea what writing centers were. I did not know about our writing center and its services until the first semester of my sophomore year, and at that time I was the typical arrogant young student — I thought my writing was good enough to forgo the center or I put off completion until the last minute, finishing too late to have time to visit the center. I also had a lingering fear that a trip to the Writing Center could be as negative as it could be positive. Thankfully, during the second half of my sophomore year, a teacher — whom I respected a lot — recommended the Writing Center, so I finally went. My previous concerns about the Writing Center were proven wrong, and that resulted in my making several appointments over the course of the semester. It was also at this time that I learned I had been nominated for the Writing Center Undergraduate Tutor program. Though I was unfamiliar with the WCUT program, I was excited to learn more and immediately applied for a position. Now, having been through the program and worked in the CU Writing Center for a year, I can say that choosing to apply for  WCUT program is one of the best decisions I have made in my academic career.

The WCUT program was developed by Dr. Taryn Okuma, who serves as its director, and is run in collaboration with Dr. Kevin Rulo, Director of the Writing Center and Director of the Writing & Rhetoric Program. Undergraduates from any and every department are eligible to work in the center. This not only benefits the Writing Center and its staff, it also benefits the student body as a whole. Students can meet with their peers — friends even — who understand exactly what they are going through. Given the academic diversity of students who work in and visit the center, the WCUT program is designed to ensure that undergraduate tutors are as prepared for and confident in their tutoring as possible. Admission to the program is highly competitive. Any student that wishes to be a part of the WCUT program must be recommended by an instructor. Once recommended, the student must go through an application and interview process, and only about six to seven out of approximately 40 nominees are then accepted into the program each year.

The main training portion of the program is formatted as a semester-long class, ENG 328: Writing Center Theory & Practice. The class consists of weekly readings, grammar quizzes, and discussions, as well as guest speakers and mock practice appointments. Reflecting on her experience, Elena Perkins (B.A. English ‘18), a member of the 2017 WCUT cohort, notes, “One of the best parts of being in the Writing Center class for me was the fact that it allowed me to advance and hone my editing and grammar skills, which no other English class at Catholic really does.” After two weeks to a month of class preparation, the undergraduate tutors begin working in the Writing Center, after which discussions of appointments—particularly difficult ones—become a part of each class session. Mary Margaret Olohan (B.A. English ‘18), one of the more recent participants in the WCUT program and a contemporary of mine, had this to say about the class experience: “ENG 328 has definitely been one of my favorite courses at Catholic University, not only because it is extremely well taught and engaging, but also because of its applicability. What we learned in the class we immediately applied in the Writing Center — and Dr. Okuma and Dr. Rulo frequently emphasized that we possess strong writing skills. It was very empowering to be recognized in this way!”

As the class directs tutors’ attention towards the theory and practice of improving writing through their work in the center, tutors also engage in self-reflective writing. Another member of the 2017 WCUT class, Frances Lataif (B.A. English ‘18), emphasized how the class improved her own personal growth by saying, “The WCUT class not only gave me the tools to help other students but also helped me understand my own approach to writing and how to think about writing. This made me much more confident as a tutor and in all of my other classes.” Over the course of the semester, tutors are required to write two response papers, a literacy autobiography, and a tutoring philosophy, each of which are revised to become components of a culminating portfolio. The final project of the class is a research project that is conducted over the course of the semester under the supervision of Dr. Okuma or Dr. Rulo. Tutors have pursued research on topics such as the correlation between a tutor’s personal field of study and his or her confidence as a tutor in the center, whether or not the gender of tutors affects the environment of the center or the tutorial sessions, age dynamics between tutor and tutee, the relationship between institutional mission and pedagogical practice, and more. At the end of the semester, the students have the opportunity to formalize their research and submit it to a national conference. Each year since the program was formed, tutors have successfully presented at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing or the International Writing Centers Association Conference.

As a former ENG 328 student and a current peer tutor, I can say that the class provided me with an invaluable foundation to perform well in the Writing Center. It also significantly helped me as a writer, both to improve my writing and to understand how varied and intricate the writing process really is. Mallory Nygard (B.A. English ‘16), a graduate student in Library Science at Indiana University Bloomington, is another former undergraduate tutor and participant in the WCUT program, who also has high praise for her experience and discusses how it has helped her in life beyond graduation: “Throughout the WCUT training, I was encouraged to consider essays in the whole, [as well as] the importance of every single word within the context of the particular assignment and person….Wrestling with this paradox as an undergraduate writing tutor prepared me to confront the prevalence of and consider the value in the paradoxes that immerse my own faith. Connecting what I learned with my experience outside the classroom and tutorial settings has been immeasurably valuable. The paradox of the relationship between the particular and the universal informed my decision to become a librarian in a high school where I hope to encourage students to confront the paradoxes of their lives and the faith for themselves.”  

Wesley Cocozello (B.A. English ‘14), Communications and Outreach Coordinator for the Columban Center for Advocacy & Outreach, was a participant in the WCUT program as well. Describing his experience in the WCUT program, he explains both how involvement in the WCUT program has translated brilliantly into his professional life and why the program is so important to Catholic University students: “Working as a WCUT was a watershed moment for me as a writer. I learned how to think systematically about the act of writing and how to apply essential questions of meaning-making and style to a piece of writing. As a professional writer and a writing hobbyist, I call upon these lessons every day. I learned more about writing working with the CUA Writing Center than I did at any other point of my formal education. The WCUT program is important to CUA because it gives students a safe space to talk about their writing. For many of the students I worked with, writing is an intimidating process, both the act of writing and the act of sharing that writing. The WC allows students to take their work to a peer instead of a professor. This less pressurized setting encourages students to let their guard down — they are not as afraid of their mistakes and are more open to learning from them.”

Today, the Catholic U Writing Center is the most successful it has ever been. Dr. Rulo has carefully documented the growth of appointments at the Writing Center since the WCUT program was started and says, “[During the 2017-18] academic year the Writing Center had over 4,000 total sessions. That’s a 20% increase from last year. The year before the inception of the WCUT program that number was right around 1,000 so we have quadrupled our numbers for total number of sessions.” Currently there are undergraduate tutors from English, Psychology, Philosophy, Engineering,  Musical Theater, Media Studies, and Drama. A new batch of students has been chosen for this year’s WCUT class, and they are unbelievably promising.

Here’s to the new batch of tutors, to the continuing tutors, to the graduating tutors, and to the alumni tutors for all their hard work. Here’s to the directors for completely transforming the center into an incredible resource for all students. And here’s to you for reading this and supporting the Writing Center! If you are ever at Catholic U, do yourself a favor and stop by.

For more information about the WCUT program, please visit the Catholic U. Writing Center website.