My name is Beth Downey. I’m a third-year English student and I started volunteering for Peer Assisted Learning (PAL), CMU’s volunteer tutoring program, in my first year. PAL gets most all of its volunteers by gathering recommendations from faculty; you’ll understand why when I say that I might never have joined up if I hadn’t found out that one of my English professors recommended me. I would have assumed I needed to be older, more experienced, more advanced. And looking back, I would have missed out.

PAL is a collective of students who volunteer their time to help classmates with all things academic: homework, essay writing, test prep, study skill development, organization, and more.  At least, that’s the job description. But in my years as a volunteer, and more recently as a Co-Coordinator, I have come to view my work with PAL as being about much more than academics.

The best way to learn is to teach; the best reality check is being forced to say “I don’t know;” and the best mental health boost around is being able to help some one else in their time of need. That is why I truly believe that volunteering as a peer tutor is one of the best things a university student can do for him/herself:

Succeeding in university can be an all-consuming task, but putting your own troubles on the shelf for a couple of hours to help others keeps you in perspective as a human being.

Teaching what you’re good at makes you better because it forces you to rehearse, rephrase, explain, demonstrate, etc. Helping others in subjects where you’re capable, if not highly proficient, forces you to work through and digest tough ideas more fully. Thus, tutoring is a ready-made GPA booster.

It also forces you to practice what you preach…because it forces you to preach. Telling people over and over again that you’re here to help, that if they are struggling they can come work through the problem—not with a teacher or paid tutor, but a peer, a classmate, somebody just like them—well it really teaches you the value of team work, and getting help when you need it. It keeps you humble, and teaches you to admit your own foibles, struggles, weaknesses, without shaming yourself for them.

Similarly, there are only so many times you can tell a teary-eyed student that hasn’t slept in days to “just go to bed already” before you start taking better care of yourself too, and disbelieving your own bad arguments: “I know you don’t think you have time to sleep, but you’ll work faster if your brain isn’t dripping out your ears.”

In summary, volunteering with PAL has absolutely made my university experience: it has kept me focused, ambitious, and sharp, balanced, patient, and humble. It has kept me from getting swallowed up in the petty concerns of academia, from becoming self-centred or over-competitive. It has kept me genuine and generous-minded. Really, it has kept me more human.

Beth Downey is a guest blogger for CMU’s #myCMUlife Student Ambassador blog

If you are interested in volunteering as a peer tutor at CMU, we would love to have you! Contact Vern Kehler, Coordinator of Student Advising, at, and she will pass your name on to the PAL Coordinator(s).