Student instructors lead the way to campus fitness – and more

Student instructors lead the way to campus fitness – and more

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Exercise classes are common enough in higher education. But the Fort Lewis College Group X exercise program presents those classes with a twist: in this program, the students are the teachers.

For these Group X student instructors, there’s more to gain than just fitness or a part-time job. They get to experience what it’s like to be a leader in a professional setting, gaining confidence and skills while teaching some seriously fun and challenging classes.

“We offer tons, from Zumba to yoga,” says Cody Christianson, a senior Marketing major and total-body conditioning instructor. “We really try to provide the students and the faculty and the staff on this campus with as many fitness options as we can give them.”

Here’s how Group X works: Each semester, the Student Life Center schedules about two dozen weekly fitness classes. These classes are free to students and are open to all staff and faculty members of the Student Life Center. There is no course registration, no fees, no homework. Instead, participants attend whichever classes they please, whenever they like.

The signature feature of Group X classes, of course, is that they are designed and led by current FLC students. Many, but not all, instructors are students in the Exercise Science  program. And the crux of the program is its peer-to-peer teaching model.

“There's this really beautiful and comforting sense of relatability between students,” explains yoga instructor Dagny Pottersmith, a senior Environmental Studies major.  “It’s a communal experience with people who understand each other from an experiential space.”

To hear the instructors talk about them, the Group X classes enable much more than personal fitness—for participants and teachers alike. For instance, the healing communal aspects are key to Pottersmith’s yoga classes.

“Whether you're a student or you work for the school, we have very busy lives,” she says. “It can be a little bit isolating at times. The space of Group X allows us to slow down and realize that we are not alone. Showing up in that space with our fellow students helps us replenish and cultivate that sense of community.”

Christianson also perceives how his students translate their lessons outside the gym. “Every single patron participating in my classes can learn to be confident within themselves in regards to fitness,” he says. “I think once you can find confidence in fitness, that overlays so many different aspects of your life.”

When it comes to cultivating community and confidence, the Group X instructors aren’t simply along for the ride. They, too, benefit from these leadership experiences.

For starters, each Group X instructor receives professional development and one-on-one mentoring from Recreational Services employees. “We are student-driven,” says Christina Fernandez, the Student Life Center’s fitness & marketing assistant coordinator. “We want to get them ready to go out into the world. That’s why we want the students to be here teaching, and we want them learning.”

But once the instructors are in the classroom, they are in charge. Mastering the material is the easy part, they say; it’s getting in front of their peers that challenges them most. And it’s those experiences that lead them to meaningful growth.

The fun parts of group exercise enable the instructors to develop the skills they can transfer to their majors and their future professions, Fernandez says. That’s why the instructors develop their courses with their own interests, tastes, and what she calls “flavor and spice” in mind.

Pottersmith says that experience of teaching and designing classes is, in a word, transformational. “I can’t put a number on what it feels like to be able to speak clearly in front of people, give a presentation, or just trust myself,” she says.

“I attribute a lot of my academic and professional success to finding confidence in my public speaking abilities and leadership abilities,” Christianson adds. “I think it’s important that we continue to provide these leadership roles to students so they can develop and blossom into professionals.”

Such outcomes are a goal of the Group X program—in fact, Christianson has already received offers for graduate assistantships after graduation, which he credits to his work with Recreational Services. But the process of teaching fitness classes enriches the FLC campus in the here and now, as well.

“We're here together to make students feel safe, to create a fun environment for us to all feel good in our bodies,” Pottersmith says. “I love it.”

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