Training Peer Mentors for First-Year Students: What’s Missing

two people working together on an assignment

Peer educators can serve as an effective front line in the student development and academic success of first-year students, and employing peer mentors (either as employees or as volunteers) can save on costs. Yet many institutions provide only the most cursory training and orientation for their peer mentors.

This week, we turned to Sarah Whitley, the forward-thinking director of first-year experience and family programs with Longwood University. We asked her what critical efforts are often missing from peer mentor training. Here are three items she drew our attention to.

Introduce Student Development Theory

“One thing that I have found incredibly useful and successful, and that many universities aren’t doing, is to actually provide a training session on student development theory. I know that probably seems a bit “heavy” for undergraduates. It seems like more of a graduate school topic. But offer a basic overview to kick off your training program, because it’s really important for the peer mentors to understand the developmental level of new students coming into the institution.”
Sarah Whitley, Longwood University

Whitley suggests that a basic overview of Chickering and Perry and brief discussions of student development vectors, how students are trying to make decisions, and how students are progressing developmentally can help you equip your peer mentors with the knowledge and perspective needed to better assist their students. You can then refer back to these concepts throughout your training program.

“For example,” Whitley notes, “earlier this week one of my peer mentors came in after an orientation day and said, ‘I could not get a student to move past this issue today. She just couldn’t get it.'” In this case, in brainstorming with the mentor, Whitley was able to help the mentor see that the student was seeing the issue through a dualistic frame of mind. Once the peer mentor grasped this, she was able to help the student reframe the issue. The mentor understood that she needed to meet the student where she is developmentally, and had the conceptual framework needed to reconsider her approach.

Include Crisis Management

Whitley also emphasizes the importances of training peer mentors how to respond when a student approaches them with a life crisis.

“Our peer mentors are the front line of defense in most crisis situations with new students, especially during the first six weeks of the term.”
Sarah Whitley, Longwood University

Because the mentor/mentee relationship is a peer relationship, the mentor becomes one of the most likely people that a student will turn to in the event of academic difficulty, homesickness, intense life events (e.g., a sexual assault, an arrest over alcohol, etc.), or a medical crisis or death in the family.

When peer mentors receive training on how to respond, how not to respond, and what campus services and other resources they can connect students with, those mentors are in a much better position to have a positive impact on student success at the most critical moments.

Include Professional Development for the Peer Mentor

“Often, peer mentor training is focused almost solely on the needs of the students being mentored, and on how the peer mentor will serve the mentee. But you also need to help the mentor think through how this position serves them, as well, in terms of professional development.”
Sarah Whitley, Longwood University

Whitley notes that often peer mentors describe their work in ways that “sell themselves short.” Help them to think critically about their position and role, and make explicit connections between their work as peer leaders and their own professional development:

  • How would they describe their work as peer mentors in a job interview?
  • How would they include their work on a resume?
  • How can they describe what they do to other members of the campus community?

For example, partner with career services to offer a resume workshop. Provide the career advisor with a copy of the position description prior to the workshop. The advisor can then help peer mentors think through how their position might serve as a career step, what skills they need to focus on developing, and what skills to highlight on a resume or in an interview.

Read our follow-up article “3 Ways to Help Peer Educators Succeed.”

A Training Resource for Your Campus

Developing Academic Stamina in First-Year Students
Recorded Webcast

Learn how you can help students increase their “academic stamina” and persistence through the improvement of 4 essential non-cognitive skills, including academic “grit” or resilience.