by Sarah Emmerson

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people”

 -Virginia Woolf

When I started my first semester at CLC, I was both excited and terrified of what it would be like. Before attending CLC, I visited the college to take a tour and see if it was the best fit.  I fell in love with the college the moment I stepped in it; it was like eating a food you’re skeptical about but then it ends up being your favorite.  However, seeing it and living it were two different experiences.

When I started classes, everything changed because it was harder than I expected with the work load and taking classes that weren’t right for me. I jumped in too quickly with difficult classes such as marketing and a higher-level math. Plus, my struggle with depression and anxiety that had started in middle school followed me into my college education, and I ended up dropping out after my first semester.

A year and a half later I returned, and I had a new perspective on what I wanted as far as goals for college. One of them was getting help on what I struggled with the most, which was geometry. I didn’t know much about the tutoring center until I visited the math center for my geometry class.

The first time I walked into the center, there were sections that were for writing, math, sciences and language. It was alarming to walk into a room with people sitting at tables staring at me with eager eyes like tigers ready to pounce. Even though the tutors all smiled and seemed friendly, to me it was like the beginning of a horror movie. Spine-chilling fear ran through me like a wave crashing into the sea. Just the slight moves they made and the little chatter I heard while standing there was too much for me.

Even though I found the space terrifying, I went and found a math tutor. I was scared of being judged, but I faced my fears because I knew I needed a lot of help in math in order to pass. However, in my English classes I felt fairly confident. Not once did I go into the writing center for help on a paper or anything for English.

That first experience when I walked into the Tutoring Center made me extremely nervous about what would happen if I did work with a writing tutor. Millions of thoughts and questions made it impossible for me to think rationally because of my experiences from high school. Would the tutors use red pen? Would they tell me to start over or rip my paper apart? Would they criticize my grammar skills? Was I good enough to even bring a paper in for them to read? Those questions were only part of it, because before coming back to school I was diagnosed with depression and panic attacks. Being in therapy for a year did help, but then I had to face reality and the stress that came with it. I tried everything to avoid harsh criticism, and to me that meant staying away from the writing center at all costs.

Semesters went by, and then in Spring 2017, I took an English 122 class that helped me realize my passion for writing. After the spring semester was over and summer was getting started, a letter came in the mail saying my English 122 professor had recommended me to work in the writing center. I couldn’t believe what I read, and my first thought was, “Am I good enough to do this?”

I ended up getting the job, and during my first semester of work, I was also required to take a class called Introduction to Writing Center Theory & Practice. The class required hard work and a mind-set to achieve something bigger than just helping with an assignment. The books required exposed me to different articles on issues that would come up such as diversity, disabilities, building connections with students, etc. The articles gave me an idea of what happens in the writing center other than fixing a paper. They talked about how to nonverbally and verbally communicate with students, and when to be direct versus indirect. I learned the way I communicated with students could change the session, and what the students take away from it. The way I communicated also translated into learning about diversity and how to make students feel accepted.

The class taught me that no matter what major, culture, or education background someone has, they can become an independent writer. Also, having a professor, Jennifer Staben, to create a supportive, caring, creative, and encouraging environment in the class made all the difference. By being exposed to that environment, I took away how she taught the class and applied it to how I tutored. The class exposed me to what the writing center is and changed my mind for the better–that what I considered weaknesses could become my tutoring strengths in the writing center. Also, through sharing my experiences with my classmates, I showed myself that I could help students take a leap of faith and not be scared of new things.

One particular class day stuck with me and continues to impact every session that I have in the writing center. A presentation by Amy Chapin, another writing tutor, brought out my biggest weakness which now I consider my strength. Amy did a presentation about working with students with disabilities, including mental health issues, and gave demonstrations on what it might be like for those students in the classroom. Most of the demonstrations required volunteers, and I volunteered for one on what it was like to have social anxiety. At this point in the semester, my classmates didn’t know I struggled with depression and had panic attacks. I had thought that if I had showed this part of my life then people would look at me differently.

At first, when I raised my hand to volunteer I didn’t think about what I was getting myself into or how it would affect my depression or anxiety. It was an immediate reaction, like my heart knew how important this was to bring light to the situation. I wanted my fellow tutors to understand what it was like for me to have social anxiety and how it can distract from simple daily activities such as being in class. I could feel my heart beating faster after I raised my hand, and slightly regretted my decision, but there was no turning back.

Amy had me and two other tutors sitting in three desks in a row, and I was in the middle. In this scenario, I was a student in class taking notes about the lecture that Amy was giving, and the other two tutors were voices in my head. The tutor on my right was telling me positive and encouraging comments to keep me going strong. The tutor on my left was telling me negative and distracting comments. On my right I heard, “You got this. Just keep going.” On my left I heard, “You can’t do this, and you can’t even keep up!” The tutor on the left represented the voice of social anxiety and the tutor on the right represented the voice of positive thinking.

During the presentation I started to shake uncontrollably, tears rolled down my face, and all I heard by the end were the negative comments in my head. I gave up trying to focus on the lecture or writing any notes, and I ended up having a panic attack in front of my classmates. All eyes were on me as I tried to maintain any dignity I had left, but it didn’t help. Amy turned around after writing notes on the white board, having no idea what was happening, and I saw her face go to complete shock. She kept apologizing, and at that moment I thought I made a terrible mistake.

I felt a rush of humiliation, but the support that I received from my fellow tutors and teachers was shocking to me. They didn’t start consoling me or try to say something to try to make me feel better, but rather they just sat there…silent. I was shocked, because normally people would try to talk me down or say something like, “It’ll be okay. Just be happy.” Having my fellow tutors, Amy, and my professor stay silent was both liberating and the support I never knew I needed. They listened to what I had to say about how I was feeling in that moment, and why I reacted the way I did. This made me feel cared for and like they wanted to help in any way they could. I thought they would feel awkward or think I was being over dramatic, but it was the complete opposite. The experience was well worth it, because for the first time I felt that I wasn’t alone in this.

In the writing center I try to do the same for tutees that come in. When they are frustrated, I don’t try to say the right thing but rather sit quietly and let them vent out their feelings to me. I’ve learned through telling friends, counselors, and family about my feelings that it is best when they don’t respond. Reflection comes from the person talking through what is bothering them, and if I were to interrupt their flow, the person might not get to the answer themselves. Through my own reflection and understanding my mental illness, I learned active listening is the best way to help someone who is stressed or upset.

During that time, I use nonverbal cues to show the tutee that I am hearing them without making a sound such as nodding, smiling, looking at them, etc. Admitting my struggle showed me that everything takes time, and I have to try many doors until the right one opens. In the writing center, it comes back around with writing because everyone has the potential to be a good writer, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes dedication, time, patience, finding what they are passionate about and a willingness to learn new things. In the end, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life” (Virginia Woolf).

I’ll never forget where I started; a lonely, scared, and confused student feeling like I belonged nowhere. Now going through that process of becoming and learning to be a writing tutor, I realize that the writing center is a welcoming place for all writers, including people struggling with mental illnesses such as social anxiety. The support from staff, teachers, and students will be surprising and refreshing to many students at CLC. Students can always expect a smiling face and a warm welcome in the writing center with tutors eager to help. No matter what a student’s background in learning or what they struggle with, the writing center welcomes everyone. The tutors are trained to be sensitive to all these differences and struggles. Our motto is to create better writers, not better papers.

In the writing center, tutors can help a writer deal with issues that get in the way of writing. The tutors will not judge any students, but rather will listen to what the students are saying and provide support. Tutors in the writing center are not counselors, but we have access and knowledge to help students get the help they need. Tutors are trained to recognize when a writer would benefit from more/different support through the counseling center. A tutor can walk a student down to the counseling center* or give encouragement to get appropriate help for their situation. The counselors at CLC are specifically trained and educated to help students with different types of situations. But recognizing the problem is the first step, and then comes finding the right resources, just like writing a paper.

How I tutor is not by saving students but guiding them to save themselves. I want students to feel comfortable telling me what they struggle with because it’ll make them stronger and we can work on it together. I take what I have experienced and learned through training to connect with students and want to make them feel that anything is possible, because it is.

Sarah Emmerson worked as a peer writing tutor in the CLC Writing Center during the 2017-2018 academic year. In March 2018, she presented with three other peer tutors at the 2018 Midwest Writing Centers Association (MWCA) conference in Omaha, Nebraska.  This fall Sarah transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she will begin classes on September 4th. 

*For more information about the Counseling and Psychological Services department, please click here.

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