Monday, 7 August 2017

Meet Sarah: she's more than just a friendly face who's ready to help you

The Study and Learning Centre Drop-in is the best place to get free, reliable study help.
Today we're profiling Sarah Longhurst, one of the wonderful Student Learning Assistants (SLAs). She's interviewed by Adam Browne, an RMIT University Library Attendant and published sci-fi author. Let's go...

Sarah and Adam arm wrestling

Adam: Sarah and I chatted at the new Study and Learning Centre Drop-in at Swanston Library. I enjoyed it. I kept digressing into abstruse questions about her new job in Data Analytics and Management at Deloitte, starting next year. It sounds like an interesting place. 

As John Fong, the manager of the Student Learning Centre, said, Sarah gives a friendly face to the University. It’s clear she takes pleasure in helping out new students. Although she’s doing an IT degree now, I was unsurprised to learn that she’d once also studied social work. It carries through to her attitude as a Student Learning Adviser (SLA).

Where Connor (see previous interview) specialises in helping students with their written language, Sarah tends to help with coding and other aspects of IT studies -- language of a different sort. ‘I help with the logic of it,’ she says. ‘When you build software, there are a number of ways you can go about it. The less code the better; because of their lack of experience, that’s what a lot of first year students tend to need help with.’

 Adam: What do you like best about being an SLA?
Sarah: It’s the peer-to-peer stuff that makes this job awesome. I love the interaction with students, being able to calm them down, sort of normalise a stressful situation for them. I can say to them, ‘You know what? I’ve been in your situation, and it sucks, yeah? And here’s what I’ve learned about taking the worry away.’ And then later, when they come back smiling, just to thank us … it’s that nice warm fuzzy feeling of knowing I’ve made an impact on someone.

This touches on an experience I had just this week, actually. I bumped into a student on the street. He was surprised I remembered him; he was taken aback. We had a great 20 minute talk. It turned out he was having some problems, and I was able to compartmentalise things for him, put a bit of a plan in place, give him a few focal points. At the end, it was lovely, he said that the conversation turned everything around for him.

Adam: Students can expect to get help from SLAs and Learning Advisors (LAs) in Drop-in. What's the difference, and how do SLAs and Learning Advisors work together?

Sarah: Well, LAs are professional educators, whereas SLAs are students who assist their fellow students based on their own experience. SLAs welcome students when they come into Drop-in and get to know them a little by asking them how they are and what degree they are studying. If they are international students, we ask how their time in Melbourne has been so far - this is always a great way to calm a student who is overwhelmed by their transition into university life and a new country. Once we know a little about the student and what they need from the space, we will introduce them to the LA and let the LA know what the student needs help with - this eases the transition from the student meeting the SLA and then sitting with an LA.

I am studying an IT degree and I enjoy when IT students come into the Drop-in space because it means I can help them out with something I am very passionate about and skilled in! Even though English and writing is not my field of expertise, I can help students begin to plan their writing or help them to understand the criteria of the task they have to complete. This sets the student up and then I'll ensure an LA visits them making sure we have tied up any other points of confusion for the student before they leave our space.

Adam: You're studying a Bachelor of Information Technology.  How do you feel about embarking on a career in a predominantly male industry?
Sarah: Yes, it’s definitely still a problem. In a previous IT role, I was one of three women in a team of 22 -- they were significantly older than me too. It was a toxic environment. Really, my career was stopped because I was female. I was given work I couldn’t do; I was shut down, ignored -- in the end I had to take a career break. I think it’s just mental that it’s still an issue. We’re building products for all genders, all ages -- we have to make sure you’ve got diversity when you’re building products, because otherwise you’re limiting your market. (We talked here about Deloitte, where things don't sound so grim. The CEO is Cindy Cooke, who Sarah says is very much around well being and mental health, and that everyone is doing things they love to do.)

Adam: What advice would you give to new students starting at RMIT?
Sarah: Make sure you understand Blackboard! And to do that, come into Drop-in; sit down with a friendly SLA. We’ll show you how to use Blackboard, how to access email, all those things. I think that’s the most important thing when you start. Blackboard is where you discuss things with your tutors, lecturers, it’s where your notes and rosters are. It’s the spot.

Also -- try to make a friend. Do that whole weird awkward thing; when you’re sitting in a lecture, ask the person next to you about a question you’re working on. It means you’ve overcome that difficulty so often encountered when you’re on meeting new people, which is what you’re going to talk about. It gives you a talking point.

Or -- if that’s too scary … again, come into Drop-in. I’ve sometimes got a queue of people just wanting to catch up.

This sounds like good advice to me -- especially in the vibrant new Study and Learning Centre Drop-in which is part of the new Swanston Library (and also available at Bundoora Library and Brunswick Library). Sarah’s excited about it. It’s a bright, vibrant, positive place. 

If you need help with assignments, now's a great time to check it out!