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Q&A with Peter Collier: Peer Mentoring Programs Promoting Student Success

We are in a time when college completion is a critical issue. Currently more than 40% of students who begin college fail to obtain their degree. Furthermore, there is a particular concern about retention of the “nontraditional” student populations:

  • First-generation students
  • Student veterans
  • International students

In his new book, Developing Effective Student Peer Mentoring Programs: A Practitioner’s Guide to Program Design, Delivery, Evaluation, and Training, Peter Collier provides best practices and case studies to help readers create, refine, and sustain effective peer mentoring programs.

In this interview, Collier shares his experience with peer mentoring programs and the benefits of implementing them on college campuses.


  1. Why did you write this book?

I wrote this book to share information with current practitioners—those considering initiating college student peer mentoring programs—as well as those interested in learning more about how this approach works. I became aware of the need for this kind of “how-to guide” in my own work developing and conducting a first-generation college student peer mentoring program at Portland State University. Most of the information I received was in the form of stories of personal experiences in running existing programs.  Interestingly, when I reviewed the available resources, while there were some books geared toward developing student mentors/leaders, there were very few resources for someone trying to start a new program or refine an existing one. Many of the current college student mentoring programs exist within “silos,” where one program or group of programs is not always aware of what other programs, even those on the same campus, are doing. In today’s college climate of scarce resources and high accountability to administrators, it is critical that peer mentoring programs be designed, delivered, and evaluated in ways that can support their claims of effectiveness.  My goal in writing this book is to provide a collection of best practices and resources that will help readers design and implement peer mentoring programs that effectively serve college students today and will be sustainable over time.

  1. What is the focus of your book?

Because I believe there needs to be more cross-talk across disciplines that share the common goal of helping college students succeed and complete their degrees, the focus of this book is to help readers understand how peer mentoring can help address these issues.  In this book, I highlight models of student success from areas such as education, human development, student affairs, and sociology, and I explore how mentoring might impact student success in each model. I also provide a “how-to” guide for setting up effective programs. Readers can refer to best practices, resources, and case studies from specific programs to illustrate how to address program issues like design, delivery, content, training, and evaluation.

  1. What types of peer mentoring programs are currently active on U.S. college campuses?

Currently, there are many different types of peer mentoring programs on U.S. college campus. They range from one-semester, face-to-face delivered programs that are tailored for a specific subgroup of students experiencing a specific educational transition (e.g. two-year to four-year college), to full-year programs for all incoming students that deliver support through a combination of in-person and e-mentoring. This book introduces a helpful resource, the Peer Mentoring Program Rubric, which categorizes programs in terms of four meta-level dimensions: inclusiveness, duration, approach to meeting students’ needs, and type of higher education transition.

PEER MENTORING PROGRAM RUBRIC
Inclusiveness Duration Approach to addressing students’ needs College Transition
HIGH SCHOOL TO COLLEGE
UNIVERSAL:

Open to all Students

SHORT TERM:

One semester or less

TARGETED:

Meets student needs at one point in time

TWO-YEAR TO FOUR-YEAR COLLEGE
RETURNING STUDENT REENTERING
TAILORED:

Designed for a specific audience

LONG TERM:

More than one semester

DEVELOPMENTAL:

Responds to student needs as they evolve over time

UNDERGRADUATE TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
ONE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM TO ANOTHER
  1. What kinds of college students benefit most from peer mentoring?

First of all, I believe all kinds of college students can benefit from peer mentoring, regardless of the transition—from high school to college, from a two-year to a four-year college, from the community back to college, from one educational system to another, or from an undergraduate to graduate program—moving into and within higher education is stressful for students as they are faced with new challenges and sets of expectations that are impossible for them to totally understand and optimally respond to without support. Peer mentoring can provide that support. That said, I believe that students from groups that lack familiarity with the culture of higher education are the ones who can benefit the most from peer mentoring. In particular, those groups are first-generation students, student veterans, and international students. These students are all smart enough to succeed at college, but many times they lack familiarity with higher education and are unable to differentiate and triage multiple adjustment issues. As a result, they can end up undermining their college success and degree completion efforts. Peer mentors are invaluable resources for these students as the mentors have already successfully negotiated the issues new students are facing.   New students’ chances of college success increase dramatically when peer mentors share their student expertise with mentees.

  1. What are some of the adjustment issues that first-generation, international, and veteran students face?

Just to provide a little context, this book begins by distinguishing among adjustment issues that all students face (e.g., personal development issues, sense of belonging, adequate preparation, time management, managing money), those associated with specific transitions (e.g. high school to college results in a change in the basic student-teacher relationship;  two-year transfer to four-year college results in a greater variety in professors’ expectations), and those specific to or more important for particular groups of students.

In the first half of the book, there are extensive discussions of the adjustment issues faced by first generation students, international students, and student veterans.

1. First-generation students

First-generation students, whose parents did not complete a four-year degree at a U.S. college or university, are a large group of undersupported students. Compared to students from more educated families, these students have lower rates of enrolling in, persisting in, and graduating from college.  Particularly important issues for first generation students include:

Financial issues

College campus connection

Understanding the college culture

2.International students

U.S. universities and colleges currently enroll more international students than those of any other country in the world. Important international student adjustment issues include:

Recognizing differences in professors’ expectations

Culture shock

Language proficiency

Homesickness

3. Student veterans

Many student veterans are reenrolling in college after time away from school because of deployment or required training. In essence, fulfilling their military obligations has forced them to “stop out” of their education. Unfortunately, stopping out has been associated with lower degree completion rates and a longer time to degree completion.  Student veterans must deal with financial and academic issues similar to those of all new students. Like other returning students, student veterans face the issue of having to juggle pursuing their academic goals with family and work responsibilities. However, student veterans often face additional challenges that even other nontraditional college students do not face.

Financial issues

Administrative issues

Campus navigation

Culture shock

Lack of connection

Personal issues

  1. Why might peer mentoring be more effective than hierarchical mentoring for undergraduate college students?

Unlike hierarchical mentoring, peer mentoring matches mentors and mentees who are roughly equal in age and power for task and psychosocial support, although there is a considerable difference in each one’s level of college experience. Also, employing a peer mentoring approach to supporting college students’ transition and adjustment to the university has two clear advantages: (a) reduced cost and (b) increased availability of potential mentors. In addition peer mentoring may be particularly effective for mentoring undergraduate students because of issues associated with credibility.


Pete CollierDr. Peter Collier is the Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Portland State University (PSU) and director of Dr. Peter J. Collier Consulting. He brings more than 20 years of experience in program design, evaluation and promotion of college student retention and academic success to assist practitioners interested in developing new or refining existing peer mentoring programs.

Author of the new title, Developing Effective Peer Mentoring Programs: A Practitioner’s Guide to program Design, Delivery, Evaluation, and Training, October 2015, Paper, 978 1 62036 076 7, $37.50

View sample chapter here.

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To learn more about Dr. Collier’s approach for using mentoring to promote college student success and degree completion, please visit his website, Dr. Peter J. Collier Consulting, and the College Student Mentoring Matters blog.

For more about Developing Effective Peer Mentoring Programs contact Shaqunia Clark.

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