Sara DeSantis, a librarian at the University of South Carolina Upstate, tutors students on the side using the online platform TutorMe, which connects students with tutors for more than 300 subjects in less than 30 seconds. Before COVID-19 changed the learning landscape, she was tutoring three to four hours a week. Since the start of the pandemic, Sara has gotten a flood of students who need one-on-one support that’s hard to come by in the age of Zoom classrooms. Learning loss during this time has been substantial, and in her role as an on-demand, online tutor she not only helps students catch up, but gives them back a semblance of control over their education.
I had the opportunity to interview Sara recently. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: What prompted you to begin tutoring with TutorMe?
Sara Desantis: I figured it’d be a fun side hustle for some extra money. When COVID began a couple months later, I kept with it in case I got laid off from my full-time job as a librarian. The unexpected growth in the number of students I was helping per week made it an easy decision to keep tutoring.
Griffin: What’s your educational background?
Desantis: I graduated with both a political science and philosophy degree from Berman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I entered college with the intention of being a dentist, but I was so bad at chemistry that I made the switch. Looking back, I probably would’ve done an okay job had I sought out a tutor. I enjoyed the research and the writing behind poli sci and philosophy, and I eventually got my masters in library science at the University of South Carolina Upstate.
Griffin: Roughly how many hours a day a week do you tutor? In what subjects?
Desantis: I tutor roughly 30-50 hours a week. Since a lot of students need help in the evenings, it’s easy for me to hop on and grab a session with a student whenever I’m available. I mainly tutor library science, study skills, and writing. I also provide feedback on student papers through TutorMe’s Writing Lab. I mostly tutor college students, but I have the occasional high school student. Since I’m a full-time librarian, I tutor a lot of students on topics that revolve around library studies.
Griffin: How did COVID-19 change the way you tutored?
Desantis: Definitely. Since I began tutoring right before COVID-19 began, I have seen the before-and-after of the tutoring experience. I am tutoring far more students now, and many of them come into a session panicked about their studies. I can just tell. Some of my students thrown into the online world are anxiety-ridden and have clearly made the recent decision to give online tutoring a try—which I think is smart on their part.
Another major change I’ve noticed is that I’ve found myself becoming more of an emotional support alongside my academic support role. I listen to many students dealing with family and personal issues along with their stress around school. Sometimes I hop on a session with a student and I end up being their cheerleader for the hour. I honestly think that alone has had a positive effect on their peace of mind!
Griffin: What have your observations been regarding students who are being tutored since COVID began? Are they learning differently? Are their motives or needs different?
Desantis: When COVID started, I had a lot of general study questions around making the transition from in-person to online. Many students are struggling financially. For example, one student was at a public library needing help with a paper and only had 15 minutes for a tutoring session. He told me he was a veteran and homeless now because of COVID. The only reason he had access to my help was because TutorMe partners with colleges and universities, who then offer tutoring to students at no cost.
I have developed so much empathy working with a wide-variety of traditional and non-traditional students. With more time at home, I’ve noticed that older people are using this time to get a degree, which means they first need to learn how to navigate the online world of education versus studying using a physical book and meeting with educators in person.
Griffin: What did you learn about learning method preferences in 2020-21?
Desantis: Simply that online school is very different. A lot of my students are brand new to it and need my help hyperlinking or attaching pictures to their assignments. It’s a lot of patience and going back to the basics of digital literacy. Students really appreciate it. They especially appreciate the on-demand support from tutors like me because professors of course don’t always respond in a timely manner. Some students just need specified, detailed help that support educators can’t always give considering they sometimes teach hundreds of students. I’ve noticed that an emphasized requirement of a tutor in the age of COVID is patience and empathy. A bucket of empathy aligns with students’ enhanced preference of learning in a space filled with patience and understanding. Some explanations can get repetitive, but for me, I want my student to know exactly what they’re doing. I’ll repeat myself a thousand times until they get it.
Griffin: Did you have a tutor while you were in school?
Desantis: I did have tutors! But they were my peers, which was so intimidating. In-person tutoring, especially with students I shared classes with, made me nervous. I would much rather have used an online tutoring platform while I was in school. I can tell that for my students, the screen eliminates the traditional fear of asking a seemingly dumb or novice question. The growth in my students’ confidence is so rewarding and fulfilling.
Griffin: Here’s a quick recap of why tutoring and mentoring is so important:
1. Every career has twists and turns.
2. A great tutor offers emotional support as well as information mastery.
3. Never underestimate the power of touching another life.