Photo caption: Graduate students Carlos Zurita and Sofia Vielma Delano gather in the lunchroom during an Ag Econ GSO informal coffee hour, January 2019. (Ag Communications/Tom Campbell)

Ag Econ Ph.D. students create ‘micro help desk’ for their first-year classmates

It’s late at night and you’re a student in need of an answer to one of life’s burning questions … well, not really, it’s just a tough question from this morning’s econometrics class. Normally you’d stumble out of your campus office and knock on your neighbor’s door to get a bit of advice, but with everyone working from home, therein lies the problem … who can you turn to for help?

It was a problem Ph.D. student Alecia Evans brought up during an Ag Econ Graduate Student Organization (GSO) meeting last year. Their solution was to ask higher year Ph.D. students to provide informal tutoring to first year Ph.D. students through a ‘micro help desk.’ However, even after they implemented the program, it hadn’t really taken off. 

“That first year, the help desk did not receive many questions,” said Carlos Zurita, Ph.D. Candidate and development chair for the Ag Econ GSO. With Alecia focusing on her dissertation, he’s leading the charge for the help desk. “At the time, students could easily knock on their peer's door when they had doubts about particular topics.”

Then COVID hit and that created a big incentive for the GSO to ramp up the help desk. “Most of the GSO members recalled how frequently they asked questions to students in higher years of the Ph.D. program,” said Carlos. “We realized how difficult it would be for first year students to have questions and not be able to ask their peers very easily.” 

The micro help desk originally answered questions in the lunchroom, but this year, with COVID and most students working from home, they decided to use WhatsApp and recently added an email option. There’s even a staff! Currently the help desk team includes 3 second year Ph.D. students and 4 third year Ph.D. students. 

And Carlos says, it’s working!

The help desk is receiving questions, and while they’re mostly related to mathematical analysis, operators are available to assist with a number of topics, like Micro Theory, Probability and Statistics, Math, Econometrics, and Mathematical Programming. “The help desk operators provide graphs and brief explanations to aid students in understanding the particular topics. As a result, the questions were successfully answered.”

But the help desk is more than just a place for econometrics questions, the GSO is hoping the help desk will allow the 2020 Ph.D. cohort to have a closer contact with older students and feel more connected in these difficult times. “Many Ph.D. students fear the first year, because everything is new,” said Carlos. 

There’s also a benefit for the help desk operators. Carlos said, “for me, the help desk keeps me fresh on concepts and theorems from previous classes. You also feel good to help peers in younger cohorts; especially when you remember how many questions you had that year.”

Right now, the group is recruiting more Ph.D. student help desk operators (preferably students in higher years or those who have passed the prelim). They also want to get the word out and let first year Ag Econ Ph.D. students know that the micro help desk is available, and the operators want to help. 

“We are here to help you! If we do not know the answer related to a particular topic, we can provide the names of books/articles/notes where a potential answer can be found.”

For those interested in assisting with this project or questions about the ‘micro help desk,’ contact Carlos Zurita.

Writer: Kami Goodwin

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