Peer leadership

The weekend before Labor Day I found myself blindfolded, wandering through the woods of Lakeville, Connecticut. But this was no horror movie scene. Rather it was one of many teambuilding activities I was required to complete on the three-day Brunswick-Greenwich Academy Peer Leader Retreat.

The Peer Leader Program is a treasured feature of the Brunswick and Greenwich Academy high school experience. In the spring of junior year, following a process that includes a written application as well as individual and group interviews with faculty and current peer leaders, 18 girls and 18 boys are selected for the role.

Then, before school starts in the fall, these students are divided into coed pairs and each team is assigned a group of 10 freshmen. After a lively orientation prior to opening day, peer leaders meet weekly with their freshman to share teambuilding activities and facilitate informal discussions. The purpose of the program is deliberately undefined; freshmen and their peer leaders are meant to determine individually what it means to them.

When I was selected to be a peer leader, I was thrilled, honored, and unsure of what to expect. Sure, I had participated in many of the same activities as a freshman, but I knew that repeating them in a position of authority would be a completely new experience.

The program’s first event was held in April, when the outgoing and incoming peer leaders met for a special torch-passing ceremony. With the Brunswick gym lit only by two candles, we formed a large circle and took turns talking; the seniors shared reflections on the program and the juniors offered hopes for the coming year. The outgoing peer leaders expressed such positive sentiments that I began to feel nervous, wondering if my experience could possibly meet the expectations that they set.

In particular, many of them talked about how they came together as a group on the retreat, which filled me with anticipation for the August trip. So, four months later, stepping off the yellow school bus at Camp Sloane in Lakeville, I was amused to observe the variety of reactions from my classmates.

Some grimaced at the old-fashioned tents and absence of electrical outlets, while others seemed thrilled by the campfire pit and unbothered by the mosquitoes. Having attended sleep away camp for six summers, I fell into the latter category and happily unrolled my sleeping bag on the ticking mattress.

The weekend was packed with challenging activities — some physical, such as zip lining and being led through the woods blindfolded, and some conversational, such as gathering in small groups and responding to personal questions written on notecards. Each activity revealed something new about my classmates, some of whom were my closest friends and some of whom I had never spoken to before.

In almost every case, my prior expectations proved wrong. I was surprised to discover who feared heights and who feared sharing intimate feelings. By the third day, however, each of us had scaled the climbing wall, and each of us could freely talk in the group setting.

We established an environment at Camp Sloane of openness, mutual respect, and genuine enthusiasm for the peer program. The retreat prepared us to create a similar atmosphere — focused on accepting and appreciating differences — with our freshman. The weekend also reminded me of the importance of branching out in my final year at Greenwich Academy. Learning about my classmates proved that I could develop friendships with people quite different from me.

Following orientation, the first two months with my peer group have been highly rewarding. It’s not always easy to get 100 percent participation from our freshmen, but my partner and I are constantly improving our problem-solving and communication skills.

The peer program has become a very special part of my senior experience, and I can’t wait to see how it develops throughout the year.

Sarah Better is a senior at Greenwich Academy.

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