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'While You're Away' program popular alternative for professors

By Netta S. Smith

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 31 - May 22, 1997

Doris Zallen, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies, faced a dilemma. She needed to attend an international human-genetics meeting so that she could bring back the latest information to campus, not only for her own research but also for her class on humanities in the life sciences. But attending the conference would mean missing a meeting of the class.

Then Zallen remembered that the Division of Student Affairs had instituted a program two years ago called "While You're Away...." The program provides professional lecturers from the division of student affairs to fill in for professors who have to miss class, with topics designed to meet pressing student needs. Programs range from alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and communicating with a roommate to stress management, study skills, and career issues.

Zallen called Carolyn Penn of the Health Education Office, who had a program on cancer education and prevention that sounded like the right match for her class.

"Students know very little about cancer, because they see it as a disease of middle age and old age," Zallen says. "It was wonderful to have an expert come in and make it pertinent to their lives."

Penn used a variety of interactive techniques to get the students involved. "My colleague who attended the class said that the program dealt with sensitive kinds of information in a very professional manner," Zallen says. "The program got the students talking with one another and really thinking about the issues."

The cancer program includes a "people hunt," in which students fill in squares on a board similar to a bingo game. They have to find people in the room who fit categories such as "knows someone with cancer" or "has had a breast examination performed by a health-care provider."

The series of programs has become so popular that some professors are scheduling presentations regardless of whether or not they will be in town for class.

Jill Kiecolt, associate professor of sociology, has made Penn's program on contraception a regular part of her class on dating, marriage, and divorce for the past four years. "Carolyn gets a lot of information across in a way that's fun for the students," Kiecolt said. She concludes the program with a demonstration in which students, holding cards with pictures showing sequential steps in the use of condoms, have to line up in the correct order. "The students love it, and it's really hilarious," Kiecolt said.

All of the health programs are interactive, and all are tailored to the audience. In a recent program on alcohol abuse, Penn gave students a paper that listed consequences of binge drinking. Four consequences were given in each of five categories, ranging in severity from "repeatedly having your sleep interrupted" to "having liver cancer." The students had to select the two consequences from each category that they thought they could most easily live with.

When some students protested that they couldn't find two consequences they could live with, Penn pointed out that binge drinkers don't have a choice about consequences. "If you binge drink, many of these things will happen, whether you think you can live with them or not," she said.

Penn is just one of more than 40 Student Affairs employees who presented about 100 programs during fall semester.

In addition to the cancer and contraception program, Penn and her colleagues present popular programs on alcohol, sexually transmitted disease, tobacco, infectious disease, and female and male health issues.

Program topics are wide-ranging, and presenters come from most of the areas within the division of Student Affairs-Student Health, Counseling Center, Career Services, Residential and Dining Programs, Dean of Students, and University Unions and Student Activities.

Professors can select from programs presented by the residence education staff, with topics ranging from cross-cultural adjustment to how to know when your friend has an alcohol problem. Assertive communication, benefits of campus involvement, team building, roommate communication, and personal decision-making round out the selections.

The interactive team-building program is designed "to teach the principles of teamwork in both a fun and educational way," said Ed Spencer, director of residential and dining programs.

According to Spencer, requests need not be limited to the published list. "We're glad to work with faculty members to devise programs that meet the needs of their students," he says. "The list is a starting point."

Career Services receives frequent calls for their programs on job-search preparation, producing resumés, and what employers look for in graduates. The office's 15 advisers take turns responding to program requests, which are especially popular in the fall. "The program on what employers look for in today's graduates is a big hit in the fall, as students are thinking about opportunities they can take advantage of during the upcoming school year," says adviser Sandra Baxter. In the spring, as the reality of the job search process comes home to graduating students, she says, programs on preparing resumés are of particular interest.

"Of course, Career Services is always available to help students with their job search at any time," Baxter says. Many students who have seen a program in class later come to the office for more individualized help. Throughout the year, staff members also present seminars and programs for student organizations.

Staff members from the Dean of Students Office address disability issues, including a panel discussion by students with disabilities and a program on the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These programs are especially popular with future architects, engineers, educators, and business managers who will be dealing with ADA requirements in their professional lives.

The Dean of Students staff also presents a discussion session designed to increase awareness and foster appreciation of diversity within society and programs on the Virginia Tech judicial system and university policies.

"We can do any of the programs on our list at very short notice," said Dean of Students Cathy Goree. "If someone wants a program on another topic, we're glad to put that together for them."

The University Counseling center offers several popular programs designed to help students succeed in college as well as in their personal lives.

"Study skills are vital if a student is to do well in college," says Brian Warren, director of the Student Health Center and University Counseling Center. "But many students who did well in high school haven't developed the study skills they need to succeed in college." The study-skills programs address topics such as how to manage time, deal with test anxiety, prepare for and take a test, and even how to read a textbook to get the most from it. They also teach strategies for concentration and memory improvement.

Warren's staff also presents a program on what he says is another vital component of student health and success, stress management. "College is stressful," Warren says, "and students face many new situations that they don't always know how to deal with." Relaxation training and self-hypnosis can help in stress reduction, he said, and the program introduces students to more in-depth workshops offered by the center.

The counseling center also presents a program on understanding your personality and another on the relationship between psychological issues and academic performance.

Goree suggested the idea of the "While You're Away" program to Student Affairs Vice President Landrum Cross. She worked with him and his assistant, Sharon Yeagle, to put together the program and design a flier for faculty members. Goree had begun a similar program at Mississippi State University, where she worked before coming to Virginia Tech.

"There's never a reason for a faculty member who has to be away to simply show a film or leave busy work for their classes," Goree says, "when there are so many capable people in Student Affairs who can present programs that are of great benefit to students. All we had to do was compile the information about what's available and get that information out to the faculty."

"We're very pleased with how well things are going," Yeagle said. "In fact, the interactions among faculty members, students, and staff members from the Division of Student Affairs have been so productive that we're hoping to expand the program to promote student field-study opportunities for academic credit in various offices within our division."