Relationships Drive Success: How Peer Mentoring Empowers Students

This year, the global COVID-19 pandemic changed every area of the higher education experience, from enrollment to commencement. One of the greatest threats has been to relationships and community. Without classes, dorms, dining halls, clubs, and study groups, college students lack the points of social connection integral to student satisfaction and success. Peer mentorship is a solution: a location-agnostic support network in which every student is empowered to form the relationships they need to build resilience, self-efficacy, and a sense of belonging in a chaotic time.

What peer mentorship is and is not

Within higher education, mentoring is often used interchangeably with other strategies, such as advising, counseling, and coaching, though the goals of these strategies are all distinct from the goal of peer mentorship.1 Faculty advising is a directorial, hierarchical relationship in which students often do not feel comfortable admitting challenges. Some students seek mentoring through LinkedIn or alumni networking platforms, but these tools offer little opportunity to establish structured personal relationships over time. Students may consider their academic tutor a mentor, but the goal of that relationship is solidly rooted in academic coursework, often with no other areas of a student’s life addressed.

A peer mentor/mentee relationship provides students with someone who offers empathy, trust, some core knowledge and understanding of the institution, and a shared point of view often lacking in traditional advising. The 2018 Strada Gallup Alumni Survey data shows that college graduates are two times more likely to be engaged at work if they had a mentor in college who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.2 Another study found that “mentorship can have a positive impact upon the learning experience by improving assessment performance, reducing stress and anxiety, enhancing participation and engagement in the academic community and [adding] value to student outcomes.”3 Based on this and other research, peer mentorship should not be considered an optional service but a required pillar of an institution’s student success strategy.4

Mentor Collective (MC) partners with universities to match students with relevant trained peers, professionals, or alumni mentors through MC’s customized online platform and program team. Since its founding in 2014, MC has conducted extensive research on more than forty thousand peer mentoring relationships to isolate the value of peer mentoring. While typically underfunded relative to other student support structures, peer mentoring often has an outsize impact on student success, particularly when institutions leverage technology and design a program to fit the size and needs of their specific student population.

In February 2020, MC conducted a meta-analysis across fifteen of its programs from 2016 to 2019, investigating the impact of mentorship on retention. The institutions with the programs varied in size and type, from small, private liberal arts colleges to large, public state schools, with a total sample size of 9,203. In analyzing the effect of mentorship on mentored and unmentored populations, MC found that on average retention increased 3.84 percent.

Peer mentorship at Lehigh University

In the fall of 2017, Lehigh University’s Center for Student Access and Success conducted a series of focus groups with first-generation, lower-income, and other underrepresented students. The goals of the focus groups were to determine how to reduce the loss of prospective students during the summer between the end of high school and beginning of the fall semester and how to increase a sense of belonging once students were enrolled. A big takeaway was the need for large-scale peer mentorship. While small pockets of informal mentorship existed throughout campus, Lehigh’s leadership decided that a formalized peer mentorship program, with clear goals, tracking, and assessment, could address feedback that transitioning to campus life was difficult because students felt different and disconnected.

“We wanted the incoming students to have a deep relationship with someone older who had experience and training, someone who could help guide them through those early weeks and that whole first year,” says Donald Outing, vice president for equity and community at Lehigh University.

Lehigh partnered with MC to develop a mentorship program for all 1,500 incoming first-year students. Email and text-message campaigns engaged students and communicated the benefits of having a mentor. Every volunteer mentor attended a live online training focused on setting expectations and understanding concepts like self-efficacy and active listening. After the matching process was complete, the online platform facilitated easy communication between students and mentors. The platform also provides access to more than forty discussion guides, as well as other relevant research-based content. Mentors can also use the platform
to alert administrators to larger challenges a student may be facing, such as academic or financial troubles, and the help desk responds within twenty-four hours.

Now, in its second year, the peer mentorship program at Lehigh boasts more than 1,110 peer mentor/student matches in the undergraduate program, a 70 percent opt-in rate. These pairs have logged more than five thousand conversations through the online platform.

“We installed the program as a key tool in bringing, and connecting, all students to the Lehigh campus,” Outing says. “We were particularly excited to see the tremendous quality of engagement between mentees and their peer mentors.”

“It’s been really comforting to know I have someone to turn to for help and guidance for both small and big things,” says one Lehigh student.

Another student says that his mentor has been a helpful guide down the challenging path of starting college. “Having someone you can relate to,” he says, “allows for less stress and lets me plan out my steps more carefully.” 

Notes

1. Allison E. McWilliams and Lauren R. Beam, “Advising, Counseling, Coaching, Mentoring: Models of Developmental Relationships in Higher Education,” The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal 15 (2013), https://journals.psu.edu/mentor/article/view/61280/60913.

2. “Measuring College and University Outcomes,” Gallup, accessed March 24, 2020, https://www.gallup.com/education/194264/strada-gallup-alumni-survey.aspx.

3. Michael Snowden and Tracey Hardy, “Peer Mentorship and Positive Effects on Student Mentor and Mentee Retention and Academic Success,” Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning 14 (2012): 76–92.

4. See additional research: Ellen A. Ensher, Craig Thomas, and Susan E. Murphy, “Comparison of Traditional, Step-Ahead, and Peer Mentoring on Protégés’ Support, Satisfaction, and Perceptions of Career Success: A Social Exchange Perspective,” Journal of Business and Psychology 15, no. 3 (2001), 419–43; Azman Ismail, Nor’Ain Abdullah, Norshaffika Izzaty Zaiedy, Asmuni Ab Ghani, and Najihah Omar, “Mentoring Program as an Instrument of Enhancing Mentees’ Self-Efficacy,” Acta Universitatis Danubius Communicatio 9, no. 1 (2015): 14–32.


Stephanie Krusemark is vice president of university relations and innovation at Mentor Collective. George White is professor emeritus of education and inaugural managing director of student access and success (retired) at Lehigh University.

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