A Conversation with Academic Guides Thomas Phillips and Katherine Jo

Thomas: Fall 2020 was certainly an interesting time to launch the Academic Guides program. Due to the pandemic, we had to be nimble because we couldn’t work in the residence halls as we had planned. As our goal was to meet students where they are, we thought that it really made sense to connect with students and hear from them instead of making assumptions about their needs. We conducted focus groups, sent out a survey, and just listened to them about their experiences at Duke in general and during COVID. Basically, this semester started as a listening tour.  

So, Katherine, what struck you about these conversations? 

Katherine: I was pleasantly surprised and appreciative of how open students were to talking about their experiences and the challenges they were facing, given that they’d never met us. I loved their candor and thoughtfulness about what was great about being a Duke student and what was tough about this place. 

Thomas: Absolutely. One of the first questions we asked was what they loved most about Duke; I expected many students to praise clichés like basketball or gothic architecture, but they all kept coming back to the people: the relationships with fellow students, staff, faculty… sadly, but not surprisingly, it was also the thing they were missing the most at Duke due to COVID. 

Katherine: Along those lines, one comment made by a student about Zoom has remained with me. He named something thats easily overlooked when thinking about what’s lost on Zoom. He said there’s no more of the chitchat with classmates that happens before and after class and that those informal interactions are essential for meeting and connecting with others. For me, this was helpful for planning our programs and events. It was important to create the space and opportunity for these informal interactions rather than creating a more formal and highly structured program. 

Thomas: That student was correct. I heard time and again about Zoom fatigue being real, which shattered some of my misconceptions that we’d easily realize our ideas virtually this semester.  We decided to redirect our efforts in order to offer opportunities for students to connect in real life, off their screens, but that maintained health and safety. We ended up doing a lot of events outdoors, for instance, wellness walks at Duke Gardens and This Semester’s Trash. There were study breaks and Meet & Greets. Students really responded; turnout was great (and so was the weather—we were really lucky!). It became clear that meeting students where they are physically is important to our role. 

Katherine: Talking to students directly turned out to be really fruitful because we wouldn’t have gained as concrete an understanding of what they experience and value in their daily lives. And understanding the various stressors at Duke and what students need is crucial to our work as Academic Guides.  

Thomas: When we asked them what they find most stressful about being a Duke student, the most frequent answers were the workload, pressure to do everything, and the competitive environment. All of these seemed to congeal in the frequent refrain of “effortless perfection.”   

Katherine: To me, the fact that effortless perfection was named as one of the main stressors by almost all the students we talked to confirmed and clarified the purpose of the Academic Guides in providing holistic academic support. We want students to be successful, academically and otherwise, but we are here to support them in developing and pursuing goals that are based on a healthy—and realistic—view of success and their own sense of meaning and purpose rather than on a fictitious and impossible ideal. 

Thomas: At the same time, one highlight for me was hearing some students talk about “effortless perfection” as something in the past, that some juniors and seniors recognize it as a myth and have been able to move forward on their own path. I think this underscores the need for individualization in advising as students aren’t all in the same place. 

Katherine: Right. Individualized and personalized. One comment I heard multiple times, including from staff, is that there’s an abundance of advising and support for students, but that this very abundance can be overwhelming. Students aren’t sure where to start or go. But with our location in the residence halls, they don’t have to go far to find us, and while we don’t do everything the other advisors do, students can start with us to figure out what steps to take next.   

Thomas: And on our survey, when we asked what would make them more likely to seek support services, the response that was selected the most was “if someone who offers those services personally reached out to me to meet or talk with them.” Not only is it nice to have someone personally reach out to you, but it simplifies the process. Again, being in the residence halls will make it easier to build those personal relationships with students. 

Katherine: So, Thomas, as you look ahead to the spring semester, what are you excited about?  

Thomas: Renewed promise! I don’t mean that as the cliché of winter’s end and the arrival of spring, but I really do believe that we can maintain the safe environment Duke managed during the fall semester so that this coming semester doesn’t end abruptly.  

Katherine: Yes, I agree. But even if we can’t return to campus soon, I’m excited about supporting students in new ways that create meaningful opportunities to connect with others and grow. We learned the impact of simple yet powerful “non-programs” that speak to our humanity on a basic level—breathing fresh air and being in nature, laughing together, playful interactions. 

Thomas: We were forced to be creative and resourceful, so maybe it’s not as hard as we thought. 2021, here we come!