Pathway to success with peer support

David Kerr is a senior coordinator for retention in the Office of the Provost at the Dubai campus of Zayed University. Kerr supervises Peer Assistance Leaders, a tutoring and mentoring program that allows students help each other understand class materials. (Mahinaz Saad)

By Mahinaz Saad

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – It was the Fall of 2010 when David Kerr was closely observing numerous university students tutoring each other quietly under the stairs and in different places on campus. Half of them were either too nervous, too shy or too anxious to approach their faculty members and ask for help. The other half, too reluctant or too hesitant to approach their professors in fear of appearing stupid. That was the point when Kerr came up with the idea of PALs.

PALs, which essentially stands for Peer Assistance Leaders, is a peer tutoring program at Zayed University composed of students with a GPA above 3.0 and a good academic standing who volunteer to help other students struggling with university courses. It evolved from a simple idea devised by Kerr, a senior coordinator for retention in the Office of the Provost at the Dubai campus, into an empire of highly skilled and professional students. The program started with 15 students tutoring 165 sessions annually, which grew to 60 students tutoring over 2,500 sessions annually and has now become a well-established part of the academic fabric of Zayed University.

Kerr says that he would not only select students based on their academics and high GPA but would selectively elect students that he thought would complete the PALs family.

“It didn’t matter whether the students had a gregarious and outgoing personality or a placid and calm one, what mattered was that they would fit into the PALs family and most importantly complete it,” Kerr says.

He further explained how at times he would choose student tutors not because he thought the program needed them but because he believed that they needed the program.

“Sometimes I say we don’t need them, but they need us,” Kerr says.

He says he was almost always right as with time the students would slowly integrate and harmoniously become part of the PALs family.

So how did the PALs program start? Well, success is no accident, and with every great achievement comes a great deal of hard work, commitment and a lot of effort, which is exactly what Kerr had to do to establish the PALs program. Kerr explains how it wasn’t easy to get faculty members and the senior management to approve of the PALs program as it was still a new idea. Nor was it easy to attract students into joining the program itself, as many of them didn’t understand what the program was. He introduced the social committee, different award ceremonies and events to attract students into becoming a part of the program.

“I fought hard for the program,” Kerr says.

Kerr explains how PALs is in fact “one of the most unique programs in the UAE.” Kerr says the only other tutoring programs are at American University of Sharjah and at American University in Dubai.

Kerr says that “students blossom” in the program as it develops their interpersonal skills, time management skills, confidence, self-belief and many PALS acquire very successful careers after graduating with the help of these skills.

“My proudest moment is to see the girls change, develop and grow to become better people,” Kerr says.

Retention and students’ ability to improve academically is what Kerr aspired to achieve by establishing the PALs program back in 2010.  He had a dream that the PALs students could be viewed as “big sisters” or “big brothers” whom struggling students could comfortably approach and relate to without any hierarchy or formalities. With hard work, dedication and a lot of passion that dream slowly transformed into a reality – a reality constructed by professional and dedicated students striving to utilize the knowledge they have acquired at university to give back and contribute to their university community.

Kerr says the PALs program has in fact changed him as an individual in many ways and as students grow in the program, he too grows with them. Kerr emphasized that because of the PALs program he has now become a much more student-driven person. He says he is now able to view things through the student’s eyes and perspectives and can understand and relate to them much more than when he was a faculty member teaching them before the birth of PALs program. He further added that PALs allowed him to better understand Emirati culture and become much more familiar with the unique cultures and traditions of the UAE.

About the author: Mahinaz Saad is a contributing writer for Zajel. She is studying Integrated Strategic Communication in the College of Communication and Media Sciences at Zayed University in Dubai. Mahinaz has been a recipient of the Dean’s List, an award for students with a GPA above 3.5, since she joined ZU in Fall 2016. Mahinaz is also a member of CCMS Honor Society that recognizes students for academic excellence and a member of the Middle East Public Relations Association chapter at ZU. This story was produced in ISC353 Writing for Public Relations class lead by Prof. Zoe Hurley.

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About the Author

This story was edited by Yulia Medvedeva, an assistant professor in the College of Communication and Media Sciences at Zayed University in Dubai.


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