Lending an empathetic ear

The peer mentoring program at Middlesex Community College provides an open line for communication between the mentee and mentor. (Photo: MCC)

Not long ago, Middlesex Community College (MCC) student Maddy Fadden needed help finding a safe place to live. Going through peer mentorship training at the Massachusetts college both directed Fadden to the proper resources and emphasized just how critical those services are to marginalized learners, she says.

“It’s about getting to know students while learning where all the support systems are,” says Fadden, a peer mentor for MCC’s Success Scholars Program last year. “We’re encouraging students to use these supports, because they are paying for them.”

The MCC program is designed as another layer of protection for historically underserved students, centering Black, Asian-American, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ enrollees to ensure they have assistance on their path to completion.

This article is an excerpt from the August/September issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Similar to other peer-to-peer efforts at two-year institutions nationwide, Success Scholar mentors and peers build relationships through like-minded interests and academic goals. Fadden, who is transgender, attended LGBTQ+ club meetings alongside a student. She also assisted learners in her major — liberal arts and sciences — while navigating mentees to the proper tutoring or financial resources on campus.

“I’d help students going through similar problems like I had, or just send them to the right office,” says Fadden. “I was basically getting them started to be successful in school.”

Mentors as motivators

Ideally, peer mentoring will empower students to realize their full potential, notes Tiffany Hunter, president of Arizona’s Paradise Valley Community College (PVCC). The college’s peer leadership program started in 2000, based on Upward Bound programming at Arizona State University for first-generation and low-income students.

PVCC’s version is a three-credit course for students with 24 credit hours and a minimum 3.0 GPA. Would-be advisors must complete an application, though some mentors are chosen for the program by a professor or faculty member.

A cohort of peer mentors at Paradise Valley Community College. (Photo: PVCC)

Hunter says there is no distinct personality type befitting of a mentorship position. Demonstrated academic success, a desire to be a role model and robust communication skills are valuable qualities for students considering the program, she says.

“You want someone who’s open to meeting other people — just having that personality where they’re able to socialize with others, especially people they don’t know,” Hunter says. “Mentees may not be strong students, or not very social or have a different home life to what the mentor has. Mentors are able to engage with different students and motivate them as they navigate college.”

Making the commitment

PVCC brings on about 25 to 30 student mentors per semester. Pairings with first-year students often come organically after a mentor spends time in class with a faculty member. Professors may also identify particular students as the perfect connection for an active peer mentor.

“Faculty know these students need more support, guidance or motivation, while that student will want someone to confide in,” Hunter says. “They need someone to help them navigate work, their class schedule or home life. Or they might just want the opportunity to move through college and get to the finish line.”

Although mentorship connections are voluntary for student participants, linking with a peer undergoing the same pressures is an undeniable boon, Hunter says. PVCC’s academic affairs department sends this message of personalized guidance at the start-of-year orientation. Meanwhile, the college is training student mentors on group facilitation, major obstacles encountered by first-year learners and the intricacies of every service and resource on campus.

Peer mentors must participate in both classroom and service-learning components. Class time encompasses homework, reflection papers and weekly roundtable peer support sessions. Service learning includes joining a student for one class period per week, or about 20 hours per semester.

People unable to make a substantial time commitment are discouraged from applying as a mentor, says Hunter.

“Mentors might sit at the back of a class and engage with students afterward,” Hunter says. “They have to build trust so the mentee can discuss personal challenges. This is a space for students to express themselves freely and seek guidance on any issue.”

A sense of belonging

The Success Scholars Program at Middlesex Community College (MCC) is based on the federally-funded TRIO model of one-to-one guidance for degree-seeking students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In fostering a sense of belonging, the program aims to fill the performance gap that still exists for students of different ethnic and economic backgrounds, says MCC President Philip Sisson. According to a 2020 report from the nonprofit Education Trust, students of color as well as those from low-income families completed associate degrees and transferred to four-year degree programs at significantly lower rates than their peers.

Among other findings, the study indicated that although 80% of freshmen entering community colleges intended to earn a bachelor’s degree, only 7% of minority or low-income students reached that goal. The report stated that while these learners are “overrepresented in terms of enrollment,” they are “underrepresented among completers” at two-year institutions.

MCC seeks to bridge that disparity via Success Scholars, a program created in 2021 — nine years after the college switched to a peer tutoring model.

“Peers relate far better (than faculty) to students,” Sisson says. “They provide their own stories about their successes and failures, and help students work through difficult decisions.”

Read the rest of the article in CC Journal.

About the Author

Douglas Guth
Douglas Guth is a writer based in Ohio.