Tips for Establishing Paid Peer Mentor Positions

two people working together on an assignment

The 2009 Peer Leadership Survey sponsored by the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition found that 65 percent of peer mentor positions receive some financial compensation. Today, the nature of the compensation (paid/unpaid, type of pay, and expectations for the position) varies widely between institutions and often varies widely even across a single campus.

We spoke this week with Jimmie Gahagan, director for student engagement at the University of South Carolina, an institution with a well-established track record in developing strong and innovative student leadership programs. USC does offer paid peer mentor positions, and we were interested to hear Gahagan’s advice on the questions and issues other institutions will need to address in order to set up these positions effectively.

“Paid positions can definitely provide a financial incentive to the students and can provide supervisors with the ability to more specifically direct their work through performance review and supervision. The risk is that in hiring you may lose some of the intrinsic volunteer motivation that you often see in peer leaders who have taken unpaid positions.”
Jimmie Gahagan, University of South Carolina

To make sure that you are using paid peer mentor positions to the maximum benefit, Gahagan recommends proceeding with a high degree of intentionality in defining:

  • The desired learning outcomes
  • The scope of the positions
  • The opportunities you’ll provide peer leaders for professional development, networking, and recognition

Be Clear on the Intent and the Outcomes

How clearly have you defined what a peer leader is? Having a clear definition that then drives hiring, training, supervision, and professional development for your peer leaders is critical to making paid positions a success.

Gahagan recommends defining specific learning outcomes for each peer leader or peer mentor role:

  • What do you hope the mentor/leader will learn/gain?
  • What do you hope the peer mentee will learn/gain?

For example, perhaps one outcome for an orientation or visitor center tour leader is to hone their oral communication and public speaking skills, to be able to convey accurate information in a compelling way.

“Identify specific outcomes for an RA, for an orientation leader, etc.,” Gahagan suggests. “But also, identify outcomes that are global across your campus, across all paid peer mentor positions, or even across all positions, whether paid or unpaid. Think through how you want to see your peer mentors develop as students. For example, one of several outcomes at USC is a closer connection to the university. We want them to be more aware of the resources at the institution and more able to navigate them. We want our peer leaders to be able to describe different services available at USC.”

Then, make sure that these outcomes drive the way that you market the positions, recruit for them, and train them. “Emphasize both service to other students,” Gahagan advises, “and those specific, practical hands-on skills they will gain in the position. Tie the promotion of the position directly to those practical outcomes.”

Be Clear on the Scope

“Look at what’s already happening on campus, before creating your own peer mentor program and before deciding whether it should be paid or unpaid. Pull together a group of people that advise or supervise different peer leader positions across campus. Rather than duplicate efforts, compare notes on successes, strategies, and challenges.”
Jimmie Gahagan, University of South Carolina

Additionally, this group can help you:

  • Benchmark current paid student positions across campus –- how will new proposed paid peer mentor positions measure up?
  • Review all the options for compensation

For example, Gahagan notes that resident life mentors might receive a housing stipend and a meal plan, in lieu of a paycheck. Make sure that the type of compensation you’re offering is well aligned with the nature of the position and the outcomes you’ve defined for it.

Finally, consider carefully whether the job descriptions you’re proposing offer appropriate pay for a maneageable amount of work. “Scope creep” is very common with peer mentor positions. Have you confined the job responsibilities to those which are truly best handled by peer mentors? Gahagan cites the example of peer health mentoring and peer mentoring in service of academic support functions. In these cases, it’s important to evaluate carefully whether the services needed are best facilitated through peer-to-peer mentoring or through professional staff. “Take note of positions that may involve sensitive information or the potential for more emotional, intense conversations with students. You don’t want to set a peer leader up for something they aren’t equipped to address.”

Provide Intentional Training and Networking Opportunities

Peer leaders surveyed at the University of South Carolina suggested three ways that the institution could strive to support them:

  • Professional development
  • Networking opportunities
  • Feedback and recognition in a public/event setting

“Address peer mentors’ training needs on an ongoing basis,” Gahagan clarifies. “Make sure you aren’t just providing a one-shot training opportunity. The models I’ve seen that do the best job at training peer mentors offer biweekly or even weekly regular training and development for peer mentor cohorts.”

“We consistently hear from peer leaders that the two things they want most are camaraderie and information-sharing. You need to be intentional about providing opportunities for peer leaders to come together across campus.”
Jimmie Gahagan, University of South Carolina

Gahagan notes that you can combine training, networking, and recognition opportunities in the same events, with a little planning. “Focus on facilitating structured dialogue and brainstorming among peers.” For example, USC holds social events for peer mentors at which:

  • Central administration thanks and recognizes the peer leaders
  • Young alumni participate to talk about how their service as peer mentors contributed to their professional growth and helped them after graduation
  • Peer leaders sit at round tables to share their experiences and brainstorm ways to support each other further

These events allow for both the academic community’s public recognition of peer mentors’ leadership and academic achievements, and provide a high-energy forum for peer mentors to share best practices with each other.