When you ask students to describe the Academic Center for Excellence, or ACE as it’s more commonly referred to, there are a lot of common phrases that pop up. “Warm,” “comforting,” “friendly,” and referring to the center as “a second home” are typical.
While ACE’s full title might conjure up images of test prep and tutoring services, ACE offers so much more. Firstly, it allows students to meet with academic coaches who can assist them with various problems, ranging from issues in specific coursework to time management skills. Second, ACE is the home base for Goucher’s Supplemental Instruction (SI) program, where students can reach out for subject specific tutoring. Third, ACE offers special testing accommodations to students who require it. Finally, ACE also hosts numerous mindfulness activities: things like yoga and meditation sessions. A particularly famous member of ACE is Lucy, the center’s very own greeting dog.
ACE is considered by many to be a pillar of stability on a otherwise constantly changing campus. For those who are new to Goucher, however, the things that ACE does for students might not be readily apparent. I sat down with Peejo Sehr, the director of ACE, to ask her a few questions about the center and its various programs.
Q) What are the goals of ACE as an institution?
- Really, the fundamental goal of ACE is to support students’ academic well-being. By that I mean that we want students to feel that they are heard, that they are seen, that they are valued, and that we are really here to help them reach their potential as students, academically.
Q)There are a lot of different services here, one that’s particularly notable is academic coaching. When should a student consider seeing an academic coach?
- The model of academic coaching that we created here is based on the approach that the student doesn’t just take their intellectual selves to classes: you take your whole self to the classroom. Our coaching is very individualized. Even if you’re feeling like, “well, I think I’m not really struggling. I think I got this,” just stop by. Make an appointment to help you land and gather yourself so that, when you actually get into the thick of things, you are already working on some of those skills that we can help you develop: time management, organizing, really becoming more intentional… and really allowing yourself to set some academic and personal goals for yourself, learn about self care- and how that can affect how academically present you are in the classrooms. So the sooner the better!
Q) ACE offers a lot of other activities, such as yoga, meditation, and so on. They’re all things that might seem a little atypical if a student were thinking generally about college academic support centers. Why did you decide to pursue these kinds of activities?
- A lot of my training as a teacher and an educator is in holistic approaches to student support: helping students really reach their potential. And often times when we begin to think about what stands in the way of students reaching their potential, it’s things that are happening outside of the classroom. So when we developed this program we really looked at the evidence around mind-body practices and contemplative practices, and ways that we can help students concentrations and ability to remain present to their tasks. There was such a natural link between these two things. When we first started nine years ago, and I first started talking about this, I think people were kind of like, “what?” I think there were some questions, some doubts, but now I think there is a whole movement really looking at this comprehensive idea that students’ ability to be present is crucial to student success.
Q) Lucy is a very popular member of ACE. When did you get the idea to incorporate her into the center?
- I was scared of dogs for a long time: I’ve been bitten three times. And my first year here there was a student, and she would meet with me weekly. And at the end of our meetings she would say, “I think ACE should have a dog. I miss my dog” – she was from New York- “ACE is such a warm and friendly place, and it feels like home to me, the only thing that’s missing is a dog. Peej you’ve got to get a dog!” And then I was watching television, and there was a very sad and tragic shooting at one of the schools up in New York. They had brought therapy dogs, and I saw the impact first hand of what therapy dogs were doing- creating community and really helping people coping- and it occurred to me that this might be a really good idea. So I did some investigating, and I found out that Yale had greeter dogs on campus- that many colleges were actually doing this. So we went with making sure we got a dog- she’s my personal dog- and making sure she’s hypoallergenic so there were no issues with allergies. We were very careful to get a dog that was well mannered, well balanced, not an alpha, very gentle. We got lucky with Lucy, and she’s been coming here since she was 8 weeks old. She’s been a greeter dog her whole life, and I’ve seen so many friendships form around her. Students have come daily for four years to see her. She’s been a really great way to connect people to each other as well, and been a real source of joy.
Q) Do you think ACE is utilized as a resource as much as it should be?
- When I first came here, ACE was in a tiny little space out in Froelicher. It was out of the way for a lot of students. So we have grown: last semester we saw about 59% of the student population. 75% are first year students- which is a good number. We are kind of at capacity right now, which is a good problem to have, but I would really like it so that we can get students in as soon as you request an appointment. Now it’s about a week’s wait to get in sometimes. I would like to be able to reach out to those students who are in a place of shame, who aren’t reaching out to get the support they need, and let them know that no one is judging them here. That we are a place of support, and the more you can show up the more we can help. So I’d like to reach out to the students who have never been to ACE before.
Q) While college is, naturally, a place of transition, there seems to be an exceptionally large amount of transition this year. With construction and curriculum changes, how would you recommend students go about facing this period of transition?
- It requires us to ask for self compassion for themselves. A lot of students have mentioned similar issues. Identifying: “what are the things I can change?” and “what are the things I can’t change?” I often tell students to begin by breathing, to take a moment to pause, to begin to acknowledge that it’s hard, and find opportunities to seek solace and nature. We have a lot of beautiful trails and woods that haven’t been affected by construction, and I would invite student to seek those spaces during the day if they can. Because it is disruptive, but how do we work with the things we can’t change? It’s a lot of practice.
Q) If you could say anything to the new freshman class as they continue into their first year of college, what would it be?
- Be gentle with yourself.