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Peer-to-peer conflict coaching helps students navigate the rocky seas of grad school

The University of Toronto G2G Peer Advisors provide graduate students with practical conflict resolution and communication advice.

BY HEATHER MCGHEE PEGGS | FEB 27 2020

A complex and competitive mix of academic pressures and interpersonal relationships make graduate school simultaneously invigorating and potentially unsettling. Students must navigate complex institutional policies and processes as well as develop and maintain productive relationships with thesis supervisors and committee members. At the University of Toronto, students who don’t know where to start when facing a difficult grad school situation can connect with members of a highly trained and multidisciplinary peer support team.

The G2G Peer Advisors (G2G = graduate-to-graduate), a key part of the Graduate Conflict Resolution Centre (Grad CRC) provide graduate students with practical conflict resolution and communication advice, training, and trusted referrals to campus resources, as well as helping students “understand and work through the power dynamics embedded in supervisory relationships,” says Manaal Syed, a former G2G advisor who is currently completing a PhD in social work. Since 2016, the G2G team has grown from seven to 14 members, including research and professional masters and doctoral students from a wide range of departments, backgrounds, identities and experiences. All of the quotes that I have included in this article are insights from past and present G2G peer advisors.

The roots of the G2G team trace back in part to a 2014 report on student mental health which recommended enhanced support for graduate students around supervision and programming with a focus on peer support, resilience, problem solving and self-advocacy. The school of graduate studies, the student life department, and the graduate students’ union came together to support the creation of the centre – acknowledging in a concrete way the negative impact that conflict can have on student-faculty relationships and academic progress. In order to develop the framework for the centre, I connected with over 60 individual staff, faculty and students representing key U of T units providing support to graduate students. After these consultations, I determined that the best way to proceed would be a “wrap-around” approach and multi-dimensional, drawing deeply from my experiences with fairness reviews and investigations at the office of the ombudsperson at Ryerson University. Consequently, the Grad CRC supports all members of the graduate community – students, faculty and staff – offering individual, confidential “conflict coaching” (sharing skills and strategies to help individuals self-advocate, manage or resolve issues) as well as training/workshops. As Jessica Thorp, a current G2G advisor and PhD candidate in drama, theatre and performance studies observes, “…we may not necessarily be able to change some of the systemic issues at work in the university…but we can offer best practices for navigating the sometimes-rocky seas of grad school.”

The G2G are on the front line of conflict management: peer to peer interactions are low-barrier, credible and powerful. Margeaux Feldman, a former G2G advisor and PhD candidate in English and sexual gender studies observes, “I think that in academia there’s a real fear of not always knowing the answers or what the ‘right’ answer for a given situation is. But [we] turn that moment into an opportunity for dialogue where together we can come up with myriad possible solutions.”

As student leader para-professionals, the G2G advisors help to unravel complex situations and engage in difficult and oft-times emotional discussions with fellow students. “The peer-based structure allows me to adjust my [coaching] approach according to the student’s interests, the resources they have available in a particular moment and their readiness to pursue certain options,” notes Amika Shah, who is two years into her PhD in public health. Megan Elliott, who completed her master’s in counselling psychology adds, “…relating as equals offers students a place they can feel empowered and understood.”

At the end of many conversations students tell their G2G advisors how thankful and relieved they are about having had someone listen to them without judgement and help them to develop a plan for managing a particular concern – these comments are consistent with a recently published study of a pilot peer coaching program at Western University (Breaking Grad) which noted the potential of “peer coaching…to improve mental health and build resilience.”

There should not be any shortcuts in training, engaging and supervising student staff as part of early resolution efforts – as a former litigator and trained mediator I am familiar with how easily conflict can escalate and the enormous potential of informal interventions. The G2G are able to connect with me to discuss challenging issues and provide support to each other during and after coaching conversations. Tony Luong, a former G2G advisor who completed his master’s in public health says “…not only do we discuss things that went well, but also how we can improve in future sessions. This is important because making mistakes — albeit vulnerable — is a natural process of growing and learning….”

The depth of the initial 35 hrs of G2G training matches the depth of the graduate academic experience training and is key to building a confident team, as well as transferable professional skills. The G2G advisors share the communication and interest-based negotiation strategies they learn in training with other students in coaching sessions and when they facilitate workshops, and senior G2G advisors provide mentorship to newer members. “I listen better, I am able to manage conversations better and I also learned how to distill issues in a long narrative,” says Mariam Olafuyi, a current G2G advisor who is in her third year of her law doctorate.

Since January 2016 the Grad CRC staff have provided coaching to 633 students (76 faculty/staff), and provided training to over 2,400 students (500 faculty/staff). We track emerging issues and engage actively with faculty and administrators as they seek to respond to high priority areas such as graduate student mental wellness, group work, lab dynamics and the supervisor/student relationship. We see a pronounced and overarching preference for avoiding conflict, in particular with respect to supervisory issues – notwithstanding the highly competitive graduate environment.

While everyone in the graduate community has a responsibility to help manage conflict more effectively, informal graduate student peer support helps to promote earlier help-seeking and is one way U of T is addressing a university culture of conflict avoidance.

Heather McGhee Peggs is the manager of the Graduate Conflict Resolution Centre at the University of Toronto.

Please note: As a confidential service, the Grad CRC does not require anyone to provide us with personal information in order to access our service; we track conversations in a non-identifiable way and only share data in the aggregate.

 

Thank you to Rebecca Hazell (Grad CRC coordinator), Kim Elias and many others for their support and thoughtful comments.

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