As student Erin Clement and tutor Perlina Brasfield pored over a medical textbook in the Southeast Arkansas College library, they talked and gestured and shared stories. It’s part of the way the two teach and learn – a lively interaction that moves between the academic and the personal.

Brasfield is among five current tutors, at various stages in their own education, who work with students on a range of subjects in the SEARK Library and Center for E-Learning. Brasfield’s work is supported by the federal TRIO program, which funds some of the tutoring at the college.

“It’s like a counseling session the first week,” Brasfield said, as she described the rhythm of interaction with a student and the process of understanding the student’s learning styles. “It’s like fitting two pieces of a puzzle together.”

Brasfield earned her bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and she noted earning Certified Nursing Assistant and phlebotomy certificates from SEARK. She tutors a number of subjects, and her extensive medical studies help to craft her work with students.

The tutoring dynamic in the library at SEARK can take a number of forms. Sometimes the tutors are students themselves, helping fellow students, and in other cases recent graduates and more experienced educators do the tutoring.

Receiving tutoring from someone who’s successfully completed a course – or a program – can be inspirational to students, said Librarian Kimberly Williams.

“It gives them motivation when they know their tutor finished school,” Williams said. But she and Tikeecha Spikes, tutor coordinator and library support assistant, noted the value of other combinations, as well. Spikes said, for instance, that small-group tutorials can help students to learn.

“It seems like sometimes our students work better with other students,” Spikes said. “They learn from other students.”

For individual sessions, Spikes said, students might set up appointments or come in for walk-in sessions.

Close connections

As tutors talked about their work, they emphasized the personal connections they form with students.

“I try to create a bond with them, and show them that I’m trying to be a friend to them,” said math tutor Channon Dickson.

He noted the importance of understanding students’ learning styles, whether they’re auditory, visual or more hands-on. And Dickson, who earned a general-studies associate’s degree from SEARK in 2014, becomes particularly animated when he discusses math. He said he remembers feeling challenged by it as a young student puzzling out fractions. At first he didn’t quite understand them, and then, suddenly, he did – and so he kept on learning.

“That’s when I realized I actually had a passion for it,” he said, noting that he wants to continue his education to become a math teacher.

Dickson helps students tap experiences outside of the classroom. He might illuminate the existence of negative numbers, for instance, by discussing the concept of financial debt. He also understands that not everyone will gravitate toward the subject with the same intensity that he does, so he’s not asking students to leave a session with math suddenly anointed as their favorite subject.

“I have to try to teach them that it’s OK to dislike a subject, but if it’s a subject that you have to overcome, you’re going to have to learn to become cordial with it,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to like it, but you’re going to have to work alongside it.”

Mental power

When tutor Sam Garner helps students with math, he too engages their emotions – and he also works to create a welcoming environment.

“I ask the student, ‘How do you like math?’” he said.

Garner explained that he graduated from SEARK in 2014, as he earned an associate’s degree in graphic design and a certificate focusing on drawing. In 2016, he earned his bachelor of science degree in construction management from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

The importance of a welcoming environment is something Garner understands well. In 2006 he came to the United States from Iran, where he was born, and he needed to learn English. Soon he started taking classes at SEARK, and he said Beverly Montgomery, his English teacher, created that welcoming atmosphere.

As for math, Garner radiates with excitement about the subject. He calls it the “music of the mind” and says “it must be played.” It also permeates his home, as he goes over problems with his 10-year-old daughter, Rosie, even using whiteboards to explain concepts.

Rosie, visiting the library recently, said she enjoyed math and seemed eager to dig into the challenges it poses. But a little help is welcome, she added.

“With all of the rules, I might forget them,” she said. “That’s why I sometimes get lessons from my dad.”

Garner takes seriously the power of the human mind, he explained, and so he does not let students use a calculator, at least when they’re around him.

“The mind created the calculator,” he said with a smile. “The calculator did not create the mind.”

The influence of children

For Erin Clement, the student who receives tutoring from Perlina Brasfield, connections that reach beyond the tutoring sessions have proved to be especially helpful.

Clement graduated with an associate’s degree from SEARK in 2007, and she’s taking classes to prepare her for a nursing program, possibly at SEARK. Clement said Brasfield’s tutoring has helped her in her classes, and also in her nursing exam preparations.

Brasfield and Clement both have young children, and sometimes, Clement noted, a chapter on a subject such as respiratory processes might lead to discussions about their children’s health. That kind of personalization, Clement said, helps her to lock into concepts and remember them.

“Our children are close in age, and we would take a lot of examples and compare them with our kids,” Clement said. And so at times during a test, Clement explained, she might visualize her children.

Those images of her children have helped to nudge Clement forward in a nursing education that – thanks to some tutoring and some human connection – carries much promise.

People seeking more information can call SEARK’s Library and E-Center at 870-543-5936.