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How to be a peer mentor

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By Margaret Adolphus

What is peer mentoring?

In universities all over the world, more experienced students are helping those less so come to terms with university life, in what is known as peer mentoring.

Such schemes are not new: a quaint custom has existed for a long time in an old Scottish university whereby first year students would find themselves (or be found) a "senior man" or "senior woman" from the third or fourth year who would befriend them.

What is relatively new is the way peer mentoring has become established in many institutions as an official programme, partly in an effort to boost student retention.

A mentor is someone who helps someone explore options and find solutions by a blend of coaching and guiding. Mentoring employs counselling-type techniques, but is generally confined to the workplace, for example when more experienced people help other employees at an early stage in their careers.

Peer mentoring occurs when the difference in age and experience is much less pronounced. In higher education, peer mentoring schemes involve students who have successfully negotiated particular stages, generally, but not uniquely, the transition to the first year at university.

A peer mentor has been described as:

"A special and trusting person who, knowing more through experience, commits their time, attention and energy to assist a lesser known peer" (Guiteau, 2009).

Peer mentors are not counsellors, nor do they replace the traditional university student support services, with whom they work closely. Their role varies from institution to institution, but commonly includes the following elements:

  • Orientation, familiarization and advice-giving about the university and aspects of university life, particularly, but not uniquely, to first-years, for example: showing them round the university and the local area, pointing out resources such as the accommodation office, where to get help on financial matters, Student Welfare, the library; explaining the basics of university procedures, and other aspects of university culture; telling them how to register for classes.
  • Referring them as necessary for consultation with the resources mentioned above, or with a personal tutor.
  • Providing moral support and friendship, for example taking them out for a coffee, introducing them to people, etc.
  • Acting as facilitator and adviser on the skills needed to survive in university life, for example, time management, personal organization, essay writing, critical thinking etc.
  • Providing moral support, encouraging the mentee and helping boost their self esteem.

The mentor has a particularly important role in a student's first few weeks at university. This may be a particularly difficult period, where homesickness may add to a whole cocktail of stresses on the academic, social and cultural front as students negotiate the transition to university life. Support is particularly vital in this period, where students who do not make the adjustment are at increased risk of dropping out.

However, not all peer mentoring programmes are aimed solely at new students.

The University of Aston in Birmingham, the UK, has several mentoring schemes: prospective students are contacted by e-mail as soon as they accept a place; "transition mentoring" for new students; mentoring to help second year students get a work placement (continuing by e-mail after they have got one).

Mentees described how mentors helped them with such matters as time management, reserving a book online from the library, and CV writing and interview skills prior to their placement.

Examples of other applications of peer mentoring

Some schemes are aimed particularly at students from vulnerable demographic groups, especially those where graduation from higher education has traditionally been low.

For example, the University of North Carolina (UNC) put in place in 2004 an extensive support programme, the Carolina Covenant, for low income students, including grant funding to enable them to graduate debt free, and academic support in the first year which included peer mentoring from experienced covenant scholars.

At Rowan University, a the Dr Harley E. Flack Student Mentoring Program was put in place in the 1990s out of concern for the low graduation rates of Latino and Afro American students. It soon opened its membership to all under-represented groups and unprepared students.

Some mentoring schemes focus particularly on academic skills. This may be known as "peer-assisted learning", or curricular peer mentoring, and usually involve the mentor being involved in classroom activities.

Properly used, these should not be a way of saving the instructor time: their primary function is to help other students learn, and not to help with teaching. For example, a senior undergraduate can provide a student's perspective on learning, offer extra support in large classes, and communicate issues in a way that their own generation can understand.

At the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary in Canada, peer mentors worked as part of a two-person coaching team guiding junior management students through a community learning project. The mentors gained coaching skills, as well as experience in critical thinking and decision-making in a real world situation.

Students studying at a distance face particular problems, notably isolation.

Massey University in New Zealand has designed a programme to help its social work students studying at a distance, with mentoring support by phone and e-mail.

Many of the students were additionally disadvantaged by being "non traditional' students with limited academic skills and qualifications, from Māori and Pasifika backgrounds where higher education was seen as a foreign, inaccessible culture. Much of the mentoring involved helping them "learn how to learn" (Pukepuke and Nash, 2010).

Peer mentoring normally takes place within a structured programme, which will obviously vary from institution to institution, but will often include the following elements:

  • Some degree of selection – most programmes will look for students with empathy, good social skills, commitment to the process and willingness to give their time and energy to mentoring, as well as successful completion of their first year.
  • Attendance at a training programme.
  • Some form of regular, structured contact – for example, 30 minutes once a week on a one-to-one basis, and/or group meetings with mentors/mentees, with the first contact being made during freshers'/orientation week. Some schemes ask that the mentor e-mail or text the mentee to remind them of key deadlines.
  • Helping out in general orientation and welcoming activities, open forums, etc.