Recruit & Retain (Eckerd College)

Building Better Peer Mentoring

Because academic proficiency is the best predictor of retaining students, many colleges are making peer mentorship a part of their retention efforts. Two years ago, we enhanced our already vibrant orientation program — a three-week required Autumn Term for first-year students — with a formal peer mentorship program.

One sophomore mentor is assigned to each of the 22 to 25 sections of our first-year class (approximately 20 to 22 students in each section), and works closely with the students and faculty to ensure a smooth transition from high school to college. Peer mentors lead freshmen through academic and community-building activities, help develop time-management and study skills, and help first-year and transfer students adjust both academically and socially to college life.

Though successful retention efforts are always the result of many things working, we’ve seen our numbers track up a full percentage point since the implementation of the program. Students tell us that the peer mentors helped ease their anxieties about registering for classes and provided invaluable support during their first weeks on campus.

Here’s what’s working for us.

Finding the Right Mentors

Nominated by faculty members who will be teaching the first-year sections, Eckerd peer mentors are good role models, but they’re not necessarily our best and brightest. Top students might struggle to relate to less academically gifted students and are often already engaged in many campus activities, limiting the time needed to dedicate to a mentoring relationship. Many colleges already focus much of their attention and resources on the top students and the struggling students, sometimes neglecting those students in the middle. Also, the peer mentors are sophomores; a group of students identified as potentially at risk for attrition, so this program helps engage this segment of the campus population in leadership activities and gives them a chance to shine, too.

Providing Adequate Training

Peer mentors are selected in the spring semester of their freshman year. Training begins late spring, as we bring the mentors together for an orientation and give them their first assignment — to reach out to their “mentees” once the course is populated in early July. Thus, the peer mentors are the first personal student-contact that the incoming students have with Eckerd.

To continue their training, peer mentors arrive early to campus for one week of intense leadership training and workshops, led by the associate dean of Faculty (who also happens to be a psychologist), the outreach coordinator (a licensed mental health practitioner), and the lead academic coach. The academic coach trains the peer mentors in time management and organizational strategies. They are also taught basic skills in rapport building and communication, and learn how to recognize certain signs suggesting psychological difficulty. They pull this knowledge together by role-playing possible scenarios they may encounter. They go on a “scavenger hunt” of the campus, learning about the various resources available to students, and where to refer students who are struggling with academic or personal issues. After the Autumn Term begins, they continue to receive additional training each afternoon.

In addition to the three administrative instructors, four lead mentors (juniors who served as mentors in the previous year), provide support and assistance to current mentors throughout Autumn Term. Later, after the fall semester has begun, the peer mentors meet weekly throughout the academic year. At the end of the year, they earn a credit in “Peer Mentor Internship,” a course that contributes to the Leadership minor on campus.

Setting High Responsibilities

Many college mentoring programs go no further than “I’m here if you need me,” but the peer mentors at Eckerd do so much more. During Autumn Term, they attend the Autumn Term class, modeling good classroom behavior and helping the professors with classroom activities. They also organize two academic workshops — one to explain the registration process, and one to help students develop “semester at a glance” time management skills. Sometimes they go “above and beyond” by arranging for study sessions and offering individual academic support. The peer mentors also organize community-building activities — tie-dye parties, barbeques on the beach, movie nights, etc. Finally, they schedule one-on-one meetings with each of their mentees, checking in with them once during Autumn Term, again at fall midterm, and at the beginning of the spring semester. They also check in with them during the winter break.

Peer mentorship programs are just one tool in the retention toolbox, but they are an effective and inexpensive one. Who better than another student to help those new to campus find their way?

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Marjorie Sanfilippo is associate dean of faculty at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL. She can be reached at 727/864-7562.

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