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Leading freshmen small groups

Each semester about thirty upperclassmen have an opportunity to help their fellow freshman acclimate to the university experience by joining the Psychology 341 Group Counseling class. This class allows students to facilitate small group discussion meetings amongst freshman enrolled in the Psychology 101 course.

The Group Counseling course is a unique experience that many feel enriches the Psychology Department at PLNU.

“No other university has a program like this,” said Daniel Jenkins, professor of psychology. “The goal of having small groups is to create a community of love where people can be open and honest and develop interpersonal relationships. We want to help incoming freshman feel accepted at the university.”

While other local universities such as San Diego State and University of San Diego do offer group psychology as a course study, no other school in the area offers a course that deliberately allows upperclassmen and underclassmen to interact in a support group setting. Nor does any other campus in San Diego offer a First Year Experience (FYE) as part of the curriculum for freshmen to adjust to the challenges of university life.

At PLNU, students enrolled in Group Counseling become a part of two small groups—as leader among freshman students and as participant under a professor. Twice a week group leaders meet to share personal stories and discuss a variety of topics together, including the status of their group or some difficulties they have encountered with their small group.

“The students are supervised and they get to participate with a licensed clinical psychologist,” said Jenkins regarding the small group leaders. “They get to experience being a group leader but also a member of a group with someone who has experience in the field.”

According to the PLNU’s catalogue, the class objective is: “A group method experience which introduces theories used to modify, ameliorate, or change personal behavior. Each student is required to lead discussions with a group of up to ten freshmen students in order to discuss and explore various topics pertaining but not limited to social, mental, and spiritual development as they transition to college.”

Students interested in becoming a leader must have a minimum 2.5 GPA, fill out a form and formally apply. All majors are welcome and students have a choice between making the class one to three elective units to fit their own schedule.

While some students have had excellent experiences in small group courses, others believe the program could be improved.

“So many people do it for units and are not really into it, and then they carry that attitude to other freshman,” said Hannah Andrade, a junior Communications and Writing major and current small group leader. “I had a great small group, but my roommates hated their small group, they said it was awful and awkward and couldn’t talk to anyone. I thought that if I could make small groups more fun I could make freshmen’s lives more fun too.”

Student leaders are taught by their professors how to create a safe environment for others. Every member of the group must sign a contract obliging them not to share personal information with others outside the group, unless that information poses a threat to themselves or others. This is the only case in which a student leader must inform their supervising professor.

Nervousness is a common feeling before the first couple meetings. “I think every small group leader fears rejection at first,” said Jeremy Arruda, junior psychology major and former small group leader. “Like how will the students be? Will they be open and willing to participate? But I had the best small group ever. I wouldn’t be where I am today, if they had not been so open, friendly, and honest with one another and me.”

Group leaders are given a budget every semester so they can treat their group to an activity. Some leaders have pizza parties or bonfires. Arruda did several activities including a lantern ceremony.

By participating in the Group Counseling class there is much to be gained besides a mark on a transcript. “This isn’t just a leadership position for you, it’s an opportunity to learn from others, and allow them to invest in you as well,” said Jenkins. “And being able watch as they grow is super rewarding in itself.”

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