Why first-year college students benefit from peer mentors

Why first-year college students benefit from peer mentors

Peer mentors and other student leaders can play a key role in influencing current students’ habits and behaviors.

SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images

Students’ most influential leaders in higher education are not found in the administrative building or on the Board of Regents but sitting in the classroom next to them or in the dorm room a few floors down.

“From 50 years of research, we know that the greatest influence on currently enrolled students is the other students,” explains John N. Gardner, founder of the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. “You’ve got to use students to teach them. But historically, that’s not the model we use in higher education.”

Peer modeling can help students adapt, achieve and thrive in college when applied to the different aspects of their lives.

Here are five areas of a college or university that could benefit from peer leadership:

First-Year Seminars

Over half (56.5 percent) of first-year seminars include a peer mentor of some kind, according to a 2024 survey by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

The University of Houston Downtown revamped its first-year seminar to create a learning community among students of the same career path or academic discipline, led by a peer mentor who provides supplemental instruction.

At Texas A&M University at San Antonio, each first-year seminar has an assigned peer leader who provides one-on-one coaching during the first semester, in addition to leading classes. The peer leader’s role continues throughout the academic year through PROWL (Pursuing Resources, Opportunity, Wellness, and Learning), a more formal mentorship program, which includes event planning for students.

Transfer Transitions

For transfer students, it can be hard to find their place at a new institution and feel connected to their peers.

The University of California, San Diego automatically assigns all new transfer students to a peer mentor who shares guidance and support on the transfer experience from the student perspective. UCSD also hires student workers to serve as transfer learning strategists to provide academic-success help.

Students in Recovery

Having a positive role model and someone who can empathize with students’ struggles can also benefit students recovering from substance use or abuse. Peer support is considered one of the nine best practices of a collegiate recovery program, as well.

Alternative peer groups for students in recovery launched this past fall at the University of New Hampshire. The groups are facilitated by a trained peer mentor and supervised by a licensed drug and alcohol professional.

At Florida State University, students who are involved in the collegiate recovery program and have completed two types of training can work alongside a few of their peers as a mentor. Mentors work around two hours per week with each mentee, arranging substance-free social events, accompanying mentees to recovery-oriented meetings and sharing resources.

Campus Engagement

Some students can feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the opportunity to join student groups and organizations.

The Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities created engagement coaching for students where they receive one-on-one advising from a staff or student employee to help them map out engagement opportunities. Peer leaders share their personal experiences on campus and help students find what aligns best with their interests and goals.

Career Development

Peer leaders in the career center help make life after college appear less scary. In 2023, Rochester Institute of Technology launched an initiative led by peer mentors to help students explore their motivations for working and learning and to establish values-based living.

At Barnard College, peer career advisers provide one-on-one advising and résumé reviews, organize workshops, and create resources for the advising and programs team. Over the years, staff have learned that students are much more comfortable talking with a classmate and more likely to schedule a second appointment with a staff member after meeting with a peer.

How does your institution engage upper-level students to promote student success? Share your efforts here.

Read More