The goal of any database is to provide current and sufficient information. Easy to say, but not necessarily easy to accomplish. Building a database of former peer tutors, some of whom may well have graduated a decade or more ago, changed their name, moved to Kentucky or California or Wales, moved again (and reclaimed their previous name), calls for some determined measures. Addresses, particularly email addresses, change often. Some former tutors may still be in the campus community but most have moved on. Where and how to start to find them?
One step at a time
First and most obviously, you need a list of all the former peer writing tutors. You probably already have that list or can put it together from your own tutor training course and writing center files–or maybe not. In either case, there are likely to be allies on your campus who can and will help you build your database.
• The Registrar’s Office or the Office of Student Records. If you have a credit bearing tutor training course in place, the folks in this office can most likely print up a record of every student who ever enrolled in that course. You can use their list to check your own.
• The Alumni Office. Almost every post-secondary school has an office of people in charge of keeping track of graduates. Explain to them briefly what the Peer Tutor Alumni Research Project is about, give them your most recent list, and ask for their help. Keeping track of graduates is what they do. With any luck at all, they not only will give you a new list complete with addresses, emails and phone numbers, but they can make it available to you in a suitable software format, such as Excel.
Now you have a first daft of your peer tutor alumni database. The database won’t truly be completed until the project is over: in other words, your database is a work in process. Because the addresses, email, and phone number that you get from your campus experts will in many cases be out of date, you have a first draft. This initial draft, however, is a great place to start fast in contacting your former tutors.
If you are already familiar with Excel or similar database software, you only need to label the cells to suit your record keeping necessities. Here are some useful headings: Name, graduation date, address, email, phone number, date survey sent, form of survey (snail mail, email, website) date returned, thank you note sent comments. If you don’t have knowledge of a spread sheet programs, scotch tape a could of sheets of blank paper together, write the student names down the left hand margin in alphabetical order, the headings along the top, make a grid with a ruler, and you’re good to go. You can add a software form as you go along, if you so choose. The important thing is to use the database in order to revise it into a reliable source of information.
Start sending out surveys. If you have numerous alumni, you may want to send out surveys in small batches. Twenty seems to be a very workable number: sufficient to give interesting results but not overwhelming in time on task. If you have dozens and dozens of former peer tutors, you might find that trying to survey them all at once is problematic in keeping track of everyone. Unless you have the help of others, such as current tutors, working in small batches is worth considering.
For snail mail surveys, enclose a stamped envelope addressed to you or your writing center or wherever you want the completed surveys to go. The minimum postage for a first class letter will do the job. On the envelope write in large letters RETURN SERVICE REQUESTED. (You can photocopy multiple copies of these words and scotch tape them to the envelope.) This will insure that the post office will return the letter to you if they cannot deliver it; if a forwarding address is available to them, they will include it. You are now building your database and researching your former tutors simultaneously.
Some percentage of your former students’ current contact information will remain mysterious. Now is the time to unleash your formidable powers of detection. You can, of course, always “Google” them. This actually works. You can also send the names of those missing in action to those who have already responded to the survey with your request for help: do you know how one might reach them? You will be surprised and gratified to learn that so and so is now is now living in Cleveland, Ohio, and here is her latest address (email address, phone number). Still, some addresses and other pertinent information will remain unknown. Send this list of names back to the Alumni Office and ask them to check again. More recent information my well turn up.
Your database of former peer tutors will continue to expand and develop over time, but even a partial if current list will give you access to the thoughts, memories, stories, and insights of students who have taken their peer tutor training and experience into their professional and personal lives and made good use of both. Your research results will quickly repay the efforts to build the database. Plus, if you ever needed to call on former peer tutors for help convincing your administration of the value of your program, you know you can now reach them quickly and efficiently.