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How to be a peer mentor

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.

How to be an effective peer mentor

You may have read this far, and decided you would like to put your experience of student life at the disposal of someone more junior. How can you do this effectively?

You need first to find out what schemes there are at your particular institution, either through your own department or through a central resource responsible for student welfare. You will then need to fill in an application form, stating your reasons for wanting to be a mentor, and probably go through some sort of selection process (see above). If successful, you will also probably be required to attend training.

Skills and qualities

Although the precise form of contact may vary from programme to programme, the skills and qualities you need to develop to be an effective mentor and the same.

Commitment

You need to make a commitment to the relationship: you need to be prepared to be part of someone's life for an extended period of time, helping them through tough decisions and sometimes crises, and to make the best of their lives.

The relationship may be relatively short-lived if the mentee settles down fairly quickly, but in general it should last as long as the latter feels necessary.

It goes without saying that you need to be reliable: set times for meetings, and stick to them.

Active listening skills

Listening is one of the most important mentoring (and life) skills. You need to develop the ability to be an active listener, which involves:

  • Giving your mentee your undivided attention, and showing that you are listening by maintaining eye contact, and by body language such as nodding and smiling.
  • Not being judgemental: for example, if someone tells you they want to quit after the first week, don't immediately come in with counter arguments. Ask questions for clarification, and from time to time provide brief summaries. That way, the mentee will feel that they have the space to explore their feelings and thoughts. This will help them feel relaxed, and be in a frame of mind to respond to your suggestions.
  • Being respectful and responding appropriately. Be open and honest about your own opinions, but do so with respect for the other person's point of view. Recognize that there are other ways of doing things and that your own ideas may not always be right.

Problem solving

Being a good listener does not mean that you accept everything that the mentee says. Your role is also to help the mentee work through problems and come up with appropriate solutions. You will need to make sense of a number of possibly conflicting issues and suggest a number of alternatives.

Empathy

This means the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes and feel what they are feeling, even if you have not gone through that particular experience yourself.

Knowing your limits

It is very important to remember that you are not the mentee's only source of support. Resist the temptation to solve the problem yourself in an attempt to appear supportive. If the problem is beyond your knowledge or one where you possess minimum experience, it is much better to pass it on to a more appropriate resource.

Remember that your role is to provide general support, and not to be, say, a counsellor or a financial adviser. Trying to provide advice or help which is beyond your competence will do more harm than good.

On the other hand, you need to make sure that you refer them to the right resource, so you will need to listen carefully to determine the nature of the problem, and if appropriate consult with the other source first yourself. If doing so, make sure you have all the facts.

Facilitation

You need to facilitate the ability to solve problems, and in a group situation, discussion. If you are part of a "peer-assisted learning" or curricular peer mentoring scheme, you will need to facilitate an environment in which learning can take place.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality is the basis of trust. What is discussed between you remains confidential. There are exceptions to this, however, if you feel that the mentee's health and well-being are at stake.

Examples of such exceptions would be if you thought the mentee was at risk of self harm, or of leaving the course.

Running group sessions

Sometimes, you will be acting as mentor to a group of students, in which case you will need to run group sessions.

  • Choose a venue, which can be an informal location such as a common room or cafe (avoid venues that serve alcohol unless you are sure that all your mentees will feel comfortable with this).
  • At the first meeting, encourage people to introduce themselves by saying something about their background. Consider using an icebreaker.
  • Remember, that while it is appropriate to share your experiences, you should not dominate the meeting. Your role is as a facilitator, enabling mentees to express their concerns, and ownership of the meeting should rest with them.
  • It may be appropriate to agree the topic(s) for the next meeting at the current one.
  • If this is the case, then you will need to do some homework and make sure you are aware of the relevant university services, procedures and regulations.
  • As with one-to-one mentoring, confidentiality is important. Make sure that the group understands that anything said in the meeting will be confidential.

Understanding student growth

Students change a lot at college, and also grow as people, becoming more mature as they encounter and resolve crises and move to greater self-understanding. As a mentor, you will benefit from hearing what people have said about the psychology of student growth.

As people go through higher education, they face challenges in a number of different areas (Newton and Ender, 2010):

  • Personal: they will be living in a new environment, possibly with a room mate, interacting with new people, many of whom will be from a different background, and some of whom may present problems such as noise; they will have to make practical decisions on a daily basis, which they may not be used to; they may face peer pressure to conform to certain types of behaviour which may conflict with existing personal values and beliefs.
  • Intellectual and academic: they will have to make choices in course selection, manage competing course demands and conflicting assignment deadlines, understand administrative procedures, study subjects they find difficult, and balance work and social life.
  • Career and lifestyle: they will have to make major career decisions such as which is the most appropriate major/internship/work placement etc. to help them achieve their career objectives, and even sometimes make life-changing decisions such as whether to drop out or stop out of school.
  • Physical: they will need to cope with weight gain and loss, illness and stress; and control consumption of food and alcohol, not to mention habit-forming substances such as drugs.
  • Interpersonal: they will need to learn how to form friendships and romantic relationships; when and how to terminate relationships that are no longer supportive; show emotion in appropriate ways; manage conflict and withstand peer pressure; and do project work in teams.

Particular groups may face particular challenges. For example, mature students may face competing pressures of home, family, finding childcare, and academic work, plus having to interact with a different age group.

International students have to come to terms with a different culture and being at a distance from their natural support group. Gay and lesbian students have to face up to their sexual orientation if they have not done so already, and decide whether or not to disclose this to others.

All the above challenges will cause students varying degrees of discomfort and anxiety, and even crises. But working through these problems helps them grow as people, and mature. Maturity also involves developing one's own identity, separate from, but influenced by, family and peers.

One model of the way that students develop was proposed by Arthur W. Chickering. His Seven Vectors model, first proposed in 1969 and revised in 1993, covers the following areas:

  1. Developing competence in the intellectual (for example, critical and analytic thinking skills), physical (for example, athletic or artistic achievements), and interpersonal (listening and communication skills and the ability to function in relationships) spheres.
  2. Managing one's emotions so that one understands them and can express them in an appropriate manner.
  3. Moving from autonomy towards independence: for example, the ability to solve problems on one's own initiative.
  4. Developing mature interpersonal relationships – this includes the ability both to tolerate differences, not just of opinion, but also of culture, and to develop intimate relationships.
  5. Establishing one's own identity – which includes the above four points as well as being comfortable with oneself, and having a degree of self-knowledge.
  6. Developing a sense of purpose that helps one determine why one is at university, and what one's future career and lifestyle goals are.
  7. Developing integrity, for one's beliefs, purposes and values.
    (Source: Adapted from de Larrossa, 2000.)

What you (and others) can gain from peer mentoring

As you will by now be able to appreciate, becoming a peer mentor will give you a lot of transferable skills:

  • leadership
  • communication
  • active listening
  • cultural awareness
  • setting up meetings and enabling discussion
  • facilitating problem solving.

In addition, you will be helping others, and taking some responsibility, which can be a positive experience and will help your confidence. You will need to juggle the demands of your obligations to your mentee alongside your own studies, and that will help with your time management skills.

Helping students find their way around university systems, and survive in an academic environment, can improve your own knowledge, while gaining understanding of how others learn will help you learn yourself.

All in all, you will have acquired a marketable set of skills which will look good on your CV and help you get a work placement or job.

There are obvious benefits both to the mentee and to the university of having a peer mentoring scheme. A student will have direct experience of what the mentee is going through, and therefore be more likely to understand the particular stresses, and help solve the particular problems; he or she may have already worked out particular strategies which can be passed on.

Additionally, the mentee may feel more comfortable with a fellow student, and may find it easier to raise issues.

There is also some research that supports the positive contribution that peer mentoring can make. Various studies have been undertaken that show its benefits; perhaps the most comprehensive is Roz Phillips' research into the prevalence and possible benefits of peer mentoring. Comparing a university which did not have a peer mentoring scheme with one that did, she concluded that students who had had a mentor had higher levels of university support; were better adapted to university life; and, crucially, were less likely to withdraw.

She concluded that the benefits were threefold:

  1. students were better adapted and integrated into university;
  2. more "non-traditional" students were encouraged to attend and succeed in higher education; and
  3. time and resources were saved (Phillips, 2006).

Further studies have confirmed the benefits to both mentors and mentees. Although there is no definitive research that proves a link between mentoring and retention, anecdotal evidence would suggest that students helping one another can be of great benefit to all concerned.

References

De Larrosa, L.L. (2000), "Chickering's Seven Vectors of student development explained", paper presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the McNair Scholars Program, Texas Tech University, available at: http://www.depts.ttu.edu/mcnair/journal/Leticia.De.Larrosa.pdf [accessed 15 September 2010].

Guiteau, G. (2009), "Back to basics: Defining mentoring and its building blocks", PowerPoint presentation, Dr Harley E. Flack Student Mentoring Program, available at: http://www.rowan.edu/studentaffairs/studentmentoring/training/ [accessed 9 September 2010].

Newton, F.B. and Ender, S.C. (2010), Students Helping Students: A Guide for Peer Educators on College Campuses, 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, CA.

Phillips, R. (2006), "Research to investigate peer mentoring in UK higher education", The Higher Education Academy, Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Network, Link 15, available at: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/hlst/documents/LINK_Newsletter/Link_1… [accessed 9 September 2010].

Pukepuke, T. and Nash, S. (2010), Peer Mentoring of At-Distance Students: A Resource for Tertiary Institutions, available at: http://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/ako-hub/ako-aotearoa-central-hub/resources/pag… [accessed 9 September 2010].

University of New South Wales (2009), "University of New South Wales Counselling and Psychological Services", available at: http://www.counselling.unsw.edu.au/for-students/peer-mentoring/index.ht… [accessed 9 September 2010].