Across Disciplines and Across the World: How UWC Tutoring Prepared AlumnusErik Simmons for Life after JMU


SUMMARY: When Erik Simmons explains that he spent three months collecting spit from University Writing Center tutors for a research project, he's not surprised that it raises a few eyebrows.

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Erik Simmons tutors area high school students during a summer 2015 JMU Valley Scholars writing workshop

When Erik Simmons explains that he spent three months collecting spit from University Writing Center tutors for a research project, he’s not surprised that it raises a few eyebrows. But Simmons was not your average undergraduate student or peer tutor—and graduation has done little to change him. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from JMU in 2015, but his passion for learning extended well beyond that one field. Throughout his undergraduate career, he found innovative ways to engage his other scholarly interests, including biology, philosophy, and writing. Now his thirst for knowledge has taken him halfway around the world to Brisbane, Australia, where he studies Clinical Psychology as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland.

Simmons works in the Innovation Precinct, a UQ lab that seeks to apply psychological theories to global problems in creative ways. His current behavioral analysis research focuses on “macro-behavior modification,” or on changing certain behaviors on a large scale. Simmons aims to “take applied and theoretical principles in psychology, integrate them into an ecological model using computational methods, and then create a behavior-change program for a coastal community in Indonesia to help them reduce their unsafe fishing practices that are destroying the coral reefs.” In other words, Simmons is using psychology to help protect a delicate ecosystem threatened by human action.

Eric Simmons in Australia
Erik Simmons with John Pickering, the Innovation Precinct's Head of Innovation and Engagement, during a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia

Simmons has always loved gaining new perspectives of the world he writes about and studies. It’s this passion that brought him to Australia, and it’s also what made him such a great fit at the UWC. Simmons says, “I subscribe to the Carl Sagan notion that writing is the only real magic trick that exists today. We can use writing to communicate across time and space. Writing even allows us to enter the minds of those who have been dead for centuries.”

At JMU, Simmons wanted more out of writing than he got from his classes or the writing he did for his personal blog; this set him on the path to become a peer tutor at the University Writing Center. He saw the job as an opportunity to hone his writing and communication skills, learn about subjects outside his own major, and help others. Over four semesters and a summer as a UWC tutor, he discovered that he loved the conversations he had with students about their writing just as much as he loved helping them with their writing. He says, “My favorite sessions were the ones where I learned something new about a topic, or when we engaged the subject in deeper and even unexpected ways.”

Simmons’s experience exemplifies the idea that the UWC does so much more than help writers to create better writing; it creates better critical thinkers—and it equips tutors with a broad skillset that they can use in a myriad of ways. For example, the skills he mastered at the Writing Center have been invaluable in his graduate studies. Simmons states, “The UWC not only taught me how to work through my own drafts and what questions to ask to improve a paper, it also taught me how to engage with other writers to bring out the best in their work.” He continues, “My research is very dependent on the capacity to engage with writing in ways that resemble a tutoring session. As a lab, or sometimes one-on-one, we have to talk through the academic documents we work on. My experience at the UWC keeps me open and productive during these conversations.”

Simmons believes that it is this quality that makes working at the UWC such a unique and positive experience. To graduating tutors he advises,  “Be involved, be adventurous, and know that you have the ability to make a difference through your work at the Writing Center and as student at James Madison University.”

- Brandon Mendonca | Contributing Writer | Peer Tutor

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Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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