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Leading with Empathy

October 14, 2015

On a day of off-campus training that included trust-building exercises, Student Listeners team up on a ropes course.

Smiles. Hugs. Patience. Understanding. They’re all part of the daily toolkit of Exeter’s Student Listeners, a 77-strong group of seniors and uppers who volunteer their time to help dormmates and day students find what one Listener, senior Teffanie Goh, calls a ”safe haven – to vent, to share, to feel, to grow.”

"Just knowing that there’s someone you can spill your thoughts to,” says Goh, currently in her second year as a Listener in Dunbar, ”is not only comforting, it’s imperative.” Goh adds, ”We’re here to rejoice with students after handing in that dreaded history essay, and we’re here to share hugs and tubs of ice cream when the grade for that essay is lower than hoped for.”

For senior David Shepley, a second-year Listener in Wentworth, it’s the ”casualness” and accessibility of Listeners that makes the program so effective for everyday as well as more significant issues: ”Experiences can range from students having difficulty balancing five courses on top of their social ambitions, or just needing advice for writing their first history paper. These sorts of dilemmas are very important. The goal is to listen and attempt to understand from the perspective of the troubled student. No matter how large or small the issue, our job is not to judge its significance, but to treat each case with the most energy that we can offer.”

Students approach Listeners for help with many topics: homesickness, schoolwork, anxiety, social situations, depression, time management, drugs, alcohol, sexual identity, study habits, diet, sexual pressures, sleep, cyberbullying and more. The empathetic ear of a Listener is often all that’s needed. Listeners also help students seek additional support and resources. For all issues of health and safety, they're trained to involve adults in the dorm or to consult with the on-call counselor at the Lamont Health and Wellness Center, which is open 24/7, if they have concerns.

Connie Morse, PEA counselor and coordinator of the program, sees Student Listeners as a very successful means of support for students, in large part because ”adolescents often feel most comfortable first talking with peers, rather than adults.”

Listeners meet weekly and receive extensive training, including presentations, role-playing sessions, small group discussions and workshops with visiting speakers. Recently, the entire group of Listeners spent a day at nearby YMCA Camp Lincoln, where they learned about teamwork and providing support as they climbed high and low ropes courses, went kayaking and caonoeing, and did trust-building exercises.

"Listeners are an immensely valuable resource, adding another layer of peer support, in addition to dorm proctors, dorm faculty, advisers and family,” says Morse, who finds the program to be successful for both boys and girls.

"Listeners put out a lot of positive energy into the community,” says Declan Saviano ’17, starting his first year as a Listener in Main Street. Many volunteer because they found the program helpful during their early years at PEA. All feel that listening helps their personal development. ”I’ve taken on a greater leadership role and become a better, more caring person,” says senior Alex Farley, a second-year Listener in Main Street. Kelly Lew ’17, a day student, adds, ”It’s allowed me to understand how to approach any hard situation I get into in a healthy and sensible way.”

Learn about additional support programs for students, including Academy Student Assistance Program and Active Minds, and meet PEA’s counseling staff.