Panel: How Peer Mentoring Can Assist Students in Niche Programs or at Niche Institutions

At Academic Impressions, we have offered a number of articles and other resources on peer mentoring, and our readers and participants at our events have asked, "Is peer mentoring effective in a niche academic program -- such as nursing or aviation -- or at a niche institution?"

We forwarded this question to a panel of experts on peer mentor programs. 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

Should Niche Programs/Institutions Consider Peer Mentoring?

Margie Bader: Students coming into niche institutions or programs have no prior experience to draw on to help them cope with this very new material and practicum. Niche programs are rich in specialized content, which makes them stressful and overwhelming to some students. Mentors can help simplify the process, give tips on how to handle the material, the evaluation process and the needs of the professors. Mentors can also help to give a big picture view of where the students are headed as well as details of how to manage the program in the upcoming semesters.

Niche programs also often have a practical component or an internship. Mentors who have successfully completed this part of the program can give valuable tips on how to find a good internship and how to manage the workload. Students coming into niche programs will often be new to the city. Mentors can help them settle into the program, the college and the city which would enhance the whole college experience and help the student to succeed.

Bryce Bunting: Peer mentoring can be especially effective for “niche” institutions or niche programs because it provides the personal, customized support that students need in order to be successful in highly specialized areas.

Stacey Wilkerson: Well-implemented peer mentoring programs provide an invaluable source of marketing for niche programs. Successful peer mentoring programs have a cyclical effect. Students who have had positive experiences at their college or university and within their field of study can be powerful assets. They, peer mentors, can share their experiences with other students and with families, building buzz and excitement about the program. These students can be trained in areas of university life, program content, customer service -- and add in a bit of student development theory -- and these students become a both marketing agents and retention specialists for the niche program.

Examples of Where Peer Mentoring Can Make a Difference in Niche Programs

Margie Bader: We have mentoring in many niche programs such as nursing, aviation and firefighting. I will use our firefighting program as an example.

This is an expensive ($20,000), one year program. Many of these students are older and have not studied in a while. They also use financial assistance to pay for the program and cannot afford to fail any courses. They have to get an average of 70% to pass. This program is intensive with a strenuous practicum and physical component and a physical exam which the students have to pass. There is constant evaluation. The faculty are excellent but most are part-time, as they work in the field too.

Mentoring has become critical to the students’ success in the program. Every student in the first semester is required to have a mentor, whom they meet at orientation. We select 8 mentors and each have 4 to 5 protégés with whom they do group and individual mentoring.  When students meet their mentors early (like at orientation) “imprinting” takes place and this cements the relationship for the entire semester. The mentors spend 2 to 3 hours with their protégés at orientation, helping them with uniforms, books, showing them around campus and answering questions.

Mentoring has not only increased the retention rate but has also created a collegial and helping atmosphere within the program that was not evident before. This is the feedback that we have received verbally from the students and from our surveys with them.

Bryce Bunting. Pre-professional programs like nursing or education can benefit tremendously by organizing peer mentoring programs.  Ultimately, these programs seek to not only provide students with new knowledge or skill, but to help them take on a new identity as a nurse or a teacher.  And, providing them with opportunities to be mentored by peers who are engaged in this same process, but a little further down the road, provide powerful models for how they should be engaging in their education.  Having an experienced peer not only gives them a safe place to go when they have questions or concerns.  But, more importantly, it gives them a vision of who they can become and how they can approach their educational experience in ways that lead to growth.  And, the peer mentors themselves benefit as well because they’re learning is reinforced as they mentor and support a mentee.

Ultimately, peer mentoring is one of the best ways to build a learning community, especially in small, specialized programs or institutions -- because peer mentoring brings people together around a common set of learning goals.

Stacey Wilkerson. Peer mentoring programs are an invaluable resource to the niche program because peer mentors have more contact with students than faculty or staff do. They are students themselves and they interact with students throughout the majority of their college experience. If the goal is to build the number of students enrolled in a program or to identify weaknesses in the program, well trained peer mentors can do that for you. Respectfully, I would note that they are actively involved in the niche area and they know the ins and outs of a program better than those who designed it.

Wayne Jackson. We offer peer mentoring for our summer bridge students and over the past 6 years we have had a 98% summer to fall retention rate and 90% fall to fall retention rate. Your peer mentors can play a large role in helping students become acclimated to the college community and introducing them to important people on campus.

An In-Depth Look

We also invite you to read "Developing a Comprehensive Peer Mentor Program" -- to gain expert tips and create a plan for your own institution.