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Being on TRAC: What’s it like to be a TRAC fellow?

AP Orlebeke, Shelby Wirtz, Louise McCallie, and Greg Skutches

The TRAC (Technology, Research, and Communication) Writing Fellows Program is a peer-tutoring initiative of Library and Technology Services that is now in its sixth year.

If you talk to TRAC fellows about their experience in the program, the first thing you will notice is their enthusiasm—they are committed to the TRAC mission and have formed close ties to the people involved. What inspires this sort of loyalty? Three fellows talk about what it’s like to be in TRAC.

Drawn to TRAC

Students apply to be a TRAC fellow for a variety of reasons. Louise McCallie ‘15 is a fourth semester TRAC fellow who will be a TRAC mentor next year. A Biology major, Louise enjoys writing creative fiction. "In biology the focus is on labs and research," she says. "The TRAC program is a way to unite the two parts of me that are important—writer and science nerd."

Alex (AP) Orlebeke ‘13 ‘15G has been a TRAC fellow since 2009, and he jokes that he is "the grandfather of the TRAC fellows." Now AP is a TRAC mentor while he works toward completion of his Masters in Instructional Technology. Back when he first applied to the program he says, "The TRAC program appealed to me because I wanted to be a positive influence on Lehigh’s academic culture." AP applied for TRAC with more than the usual amount of enthusiasm. "I wrote a thirteen-page letter of interest," he recalls.

Learning the TRAC role

TRAC fellows are embedded in writing courses as peer writing tutors, a role that has few parallels in the student experience. First year fellow Shelby Wirtz ‘15 observes,"We are there to help students, but not as a TA or a professor. Students don’t necessarily know how to work with us. We try to make the conversation comfortable, to gauge their interest, and we try to engage them. It is a very unique kind of role, and I’m not sure there is anything like it on campus."

To help TRAC fellows acclimate to their new role, they take a four-credit, discussion-based seminar in the first semester that they begin the program. In this seminar, Director Greg Skutches works with a multidisciplinary team of LTS and Lehigh staff to guide students in learning a variety of new skills and concepts: peer tutoring, writing theory, the concept of minimal marking, and even meditation. Students network with and learn from librarians, instructional technologists, and other guest instructors from across the university community.

Students also learn hands-on communication skills. "We talk about practical things like how to approach non-native English speaking students and how to work with students who are disinterested," says Louise. "We learn to use questioning and other techniques to have a productive session. We also hold practice interviews with other TRAC fellows. It’s great because we can apply what we have learned right away."

New TRAC students often assume they will be correcting grammar, suggesting stylist changes, or fixing run-on sentences. Instead, Greg encourages students to focus on higher level concerns such as organization, argument, and structure. "We’re used to red pen sort of feedback that does not help us transform as writers," says AP. "TRAC is about putting stylistic concerns secondary to the focus of writer development."

TRAC and personal/professional development

How do TRAC fellows benefit from their experience in TRAC? Many former fellows report that the TRAC experience is a resume highlight that makes an impression in interviews. And while fellows generally have strong writing skills, TRAC can take them to the next level. "I do a lot of writing, but I now think more about how I write and edit," says Louise. It’s hard to ‘TRAC’ yourself, but I find I ask myself questions I ask students."

TRAC gives students experience in leading and influencing others. Shelby observes, "TRAC has helped me learn to bring out the best in others’ potentials. Others have mentored and helped me, and I love the chance to pay it forward." AP says, "I feel like I could walk into any team setting, any collaborative effort and contribute. I’ve learned that it is not about how my idea is best, it is about taking a good idea and making it the best that it can be."

One common theme among TRAC fellows is the idea that TRAC has been a transformative experience. "TRAC is one of my favorite Lehigh experiences," says Louise. "It gave me the chance to work with amazing people who I otherwise would never have crossed paths with." Says AP: "If there has been a thing that I’ve been involved in that has been most impactful here at Lehigh, it has been the TRAC program."