Debunked: Myths About Peer Mentoring

Recently at Academic Impressions, we asked a panel of experts on peer mentor programs if there were any myths or common misconceptions about peer mentoring that they would like to debunk. This article provides their answers.

Included on the panel:

  • Margie Bader, SMILE program coordinator and professor at Seneca College
  • Bryce Bunting, program administrator and learning specialist for Brigham Young University's college of undergraduate education
  • Wayne Jackson, director of multicultural academic and support services at the University of Central Florida
  • Stacey Wilkerson, interim director of the First Year Experience and Family Programs at Longwood University

Myths About Setting up Peer Mentor Programs

Bryce Bunting. One of the most common misconceptions about peer mentoring is that it is some kind of remedial program that is meant to serve only those students who are struggling or underprepared. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any student can benefit from having a peer mentor (or being a peer mentor).  In fact, learning how to be mentored is an important skill that students will need regardless of their field of study or career aspirations. Whether they plan to pursue the arts, teach in a classroom, practice law, or engineer bridges, they’ll find themselves with a need to be mentored by those who are more experienced in their chosen field. So, a peer mentoring program is a great way to orient students to this twenty-first century form of learning.

Wayne Jackson. One of the misconceptions is that it doesn’t take much to put one together. That is furthest from the truth. In order to have a successful mentoring program, individuals should plan out all phases of the program:

  • Where will the mentoring program be housed?
  • How many staff members will run the program?
  • How much will it cost to run the program?
  • When and who will conduct training for the peers and also the protégés?

These are just some of the questions that peer mentoring programs need to answer.

Stacey Wilkerson. One misperception about peer mentoring is the type of training needed to develop a well-functioning program.  It is often thought that peer mentors only need to be trained in the area in which they are working.  Whether training peer mentors to work with a niche community, within an academic setting, or for orientation programs, peer mentors must be trained in a variety of areas. They should have general knowledge of resources available to students and how to identify the appropriate resources for specific needs.  Peer mentors should have a basic understanding of how students change and progress throughout their college years.

The goal is to produce a group of paraprofessional staff members who possess skills and knowledge to place the institution’s program or area on a trajectory of continued or improved success. Developing training sessions that provide a well-rounded knowledge base will produce a successful peer mentoring program.

Myths About the Peer Mentor Relationship

Margie Bader identifies five myths in need of debunking. Here is what she had to say:

Myth #1: Peer mentoring is time consuming.
This is a misconception of many prospective mentors. There may be more focused time at the beginning of the mentoring relationship, with the time commitment tapering off as the relationship progresses. Also, with technology and different methods of communicating, mentoring today can take place face-to-face, as well as on the phone, through apps, email, by text or on social networking sites. We ask mentors to give approximately an hour a week to their protégés using their preferred means of communication.

Myth #2: Effective mentoring relationships should last a long time.
Mentoring relationships are based on the protégé’s needs and will only last as long as the protégé continues to need the mentor’s help and support. Some mentoring relationships have been effective in as little as one-to-three sessions, while others have spanned several months. Our research showed that the length of the mentoring relationship has little bearing on the successful outcome of the relationship.

Myth #3:  Only the protégé benefits from the mentoring relationship.
Even though the mentoring relationship is formed to help the protégé settle into their program and the college, being a mentor often helps to re-energize the mentor’s own college life. The mentor can network with other mentors from different programs, campuses and cultures, learns more about the college resources and about the protégés life and goals. Often sharing information about one’s own program helps mentors renew their interest in the program!

Myth #4: Mentors are older.
Yes, mentoring does have its roots in ancient Greece, where mentors were old men with long beards! However, today mentors can be younger than their protégés. They are selected based on their understanding, skill and capacity to share what they know, regardless of their age. In today’s society, many of our protégés are mature students who want to be supported by the best mentor irrespective of their age.

Myth #5: Mentoring is based on interpersonal chemistry.
Mentoring relationships are primarily functional and do not need to be viewed as friendships. Mentoring needs to be built on mutual respect and trust, and this should not be confused with chemistry or friendship. Some mentoring relationships lead to friendship but many of them end when the need for mentoring ends. However, the impact the mentor and protégé have on each other often outlives the actual relationship.