Pitt’s pandemic heroes: Ristow had to train student tutors to work online


Student tutoring may not have a more critical time than those final weeks in a semester — which is why Pitt’s campus closure last March sent Maggie Ristow scrambling to adapt the undergraduate Student Support Services program in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.

Ristow, the program’s academic coordinator since May 2019, spent the first week off campus creating training materials for tutors and tutees on how best to transfer the tutoring experience online. Student Support Services (SSS) is geared to first-generation and income-eligible students, as well as those with disabilities. Its Scholar-Tutor Program trains student tutors to bring their expertise to their student tutees for free, in-person sessions — both drop-in sessions at SSS headquarters and individual appointments anywhere the two students can meet.

Appointment-setting was already online, but of course everything else about the experience had to change. Ristow held one-on-one trainings with the scholar-tutors and made sure they understood how best to conduct tutoring online, whether on Zoom or other video chat platforms.

“I had to make sure they were really comfortable,” she says.

She also created Zoom rooms for drop-in tutoring, with breakout rooms for tutors to occupy, virtually, and a room for herself, where she could talk to students and get them to the correct tutor’s room.

“They did a wonderful job of adapting to that,” she said of her student workers.

In fact, she says, “I know it’s been a little easier — setting up times is not as challenging when you can go Zooming in from wherever.” Two of her more experienced tutors also helped by creating training videos, demonstrating tough tutoring scenarios and showing how students might best work through them.  

Another SSS program Ristow coordinates also quickly went online. The Scholars Network helps students in their second year and above, as well as alumni of the SSS, create and give presentations to SSS students, offering job advice and information about their current careers.

“In some ways the online makes some of it more accessible, for sure,” Ristow says, since more people can attend remotely and more speakers can join the remote presentation.

Ristow, who earned her master’s degree at Pitt–Johnstown in student affairs and higher education, also does academic advising. She still feels she has her greatest impact there. Small caseloads give her and fellow advisors the chance to meet with students often and at length, she explains.

“You get to know your students really well and know what they’re interested in,” Ristow says. If she learns about a professional development program and thinks a student might benefit from attendance, she can advise students about these and get them registered.

Overall, she says, her greatest impact — in person or remotely — will remain “being able to advocate for my students and find ways for them to make the most of their time at Pitt.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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