A sea of Fifth and Sixth Formers pile into Room 100. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, some against window sills and others hugging the walls. Pizza fills the space, but eating is not the priority. Instead, a wave of empathy wafts through the crowd as countless individual conversations begin. The front of the room eventually draws the attention: a single student speaks, and previous worries, stresses, and pressures dissipate.
Open only to Fifth and Sixth Formers, Peer Counseling has provided support for students since its establishment. Dr. Michael Reichert, the school’s consulting psychologist, first started the program over 30 years ago, and it has since evolved into an acclaimed treasure of the upper school experience.
Peer Counseling sessions occur once every other week, and they are split into two phases. One half consists of one-on-one conversations with another student, in which one student will listen to another student speak until they switch roles. Throughout this period, students can speak about anything, and the leaders place emphasis on listening rather than attempting to give advice. The second half, called a “demonstration,” involves a single student discussing their thoughts with Dr. Reichert while others listen. Although each individual experience is different, Peer Counseling focuses on voicing one’s thoughts and listening to others’ experiences as a way to relieve personal tension.
“The premise of the program is that humans are essentially equipped from birth to free ourselves from things that upset us and clear our minds so that we can think more clearly,” Upper School Counselor and Peer Counseling faculty leader Ms. Janet Heed said. “But what that requires is being able to sit with someone who will listen to you and notice how you’re feeling.”
With busy schedules and daunting responsibilities, distress can rapidly build within high schoolers. Boys especially neglect the necessary emotional expression to release this stress, which may explain Peer Counseling’s effectiveness.
“What I think is so important about this program at Haverford is that boys in particular have not had much opportunity to practice this skill,” Ms. Heed said. “Boys are constantly given the message when they are little to be tough, to suck it up, to not show emotions. There are times in life that you want to be tough, but there are many times in life that you need to be able to discharge the emotions you are feeling or it’ll never go away.”
At its core, Peer Counseling is a collaborative experience. Jaiden Shuchman, one of the Sixth Form Peer Counseling leaders, values the ability to absorb others’ perspectives during moments of self-reflection.
“Whether you’re having trouble with your own problems or you just want to sit and listen and talk with someone, [Peer Counseling] really allows you to gain a broader perspective of the world around you,” Shuchman said. “It allows you to see your own problems and experiences in other people’s light. You begin to look at everything in the third person, which is a little easier to comprehend and see things. It gives you that opportunity to step back and really understand yourself.”
With its welcoming atmosphere and supportive community, Peer Counseling attracts students across the entire student body.
“I remember my first Peer Counseling experience and seeing that there was the starting quarterback on the football team, but there was also the lead in the musical and someone who was really into science,” Shuchman said. “It didn’t matter what their position [in school] was. All of them were together in the same room for the same goal of coming together and reaching a common understanding about themselves and others.”
For many Peer Counseling participants, this diversity makes Peer Counseling sessions so effective and unique.
“Such a diverse group allows for so many different stories and experiences to be shared,” Michael Dean, a Sixth Form Peer Counseling leader, said. “Whether it’s athletics or academic work or the arts, being able to hear everyone’s experiences is really cool, and it’s definitely something I hadn’t thought of before [Peer Counseling]. And I think that’s what makes Peer Counseling so special. It brings all the outside groups together, and I think that’s definitely where brotherhood can really be seen.”
Through Peer Counseling, Dean has found commonality during moments of perceived isolation.
“Realizing that a lot of people in [Peer Counseling] had similar things going on to me made me realize that I was not alone with everything,” Dean said. “Even though my problems are my own, there’s so many people that have similar things going on that I know that if I need help I can reach out to so many people. I think that’s what motivated me to come back and see all of the unique perspectives.”
During a demonstration, when all eyes are centered on the speaker, Dean has felt Peer Counseling’s camaraderie.
“From personal experience, [giving a demonstration] can be really [nerve wracking],” Dean said. “But once you start talking, all of the nerves go away. When you look around and see everyone focused on you, you can feel the brotherhood and the community—that everyone is listening, that everyone is focused on you and what you have to say.”
Ultimately, the program’s culture is largely cultivated by the participants.
“Kids recognize how special it is to have this environment where you can say anything that you can’t say anywhere else,” Ms. Heed said. “It’s something they take really good care of because it is so precious to them. The heart of [Peer Counseling] are the students.”
The “what is said in the room stays in the room” culture fosters the genuine, vulnerable experiences that many students value in Peer Counseling.
“Whatever we say [during Peer Counseling sessions] stays in the space,” Dean said. “Especially if it’s the person giving the demonstration, you’re not supposed to go up to them and talk about what they said. And I think having your word be so safe allows for a lot of students to feel more relaxed and more open about talking about what’s going on in their lives.”
Even for observers, these demonstrations can evoke powerful emotions.
“During my first Peer Counseling session, when [the student giving the demonstration] talked, it really resonated with me,” Sixth Form Peer Counseling Co-Leader Willys Silvers said. “Afterwards, I just kind of sat with it, and I think it might have been the first time I had cried in years. I just let it out. It was so, like, it was such a foreign experience. But it was also so relieving afterwards that I had to come back again.”
The acceptance and appreciation of these moments of emotional expression are the foundations for Peer Counseling’s unique community.
“Especially in high school, there are moments when you have to hold [emotions] back and you’re in fear that someone is going to make fun of you,” Silvers said. “But everyone in Peer Counseling is so passionate about the space that you can feel at home and you can feel okay to say what you need to say.”
Silvers highlights that each experience is different and that it is the individual student who dictates their session.
“You don’t have to go in and cry,” Silvers said. “If nothing happens, then nothing happens. It may not be for you, but there is no harm in trying it out.”
Shuchman echoes Silvers’ statements and emphasizes that the program is inherently beneficial.
“I just think everyone should give Peer Counseling a chance—everyone should give it a shot. It’s only beneficial,” Shuchman said. “There’s no possible detriment it can have to you.”