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The problem with peer mentors

(Erica Lowenkron / Daily Collegian)

The University of Massachusetts offers a variety of resources to first-year students, meant to aid in the transition to college and to help ensure success throughout the academic year. These resources include Residential Assistants in dormitories across campus and live-in peer mentors specific to first year halls.

But why both? A freshman myself, I‘ve only been here for a few weeks, yet even in this short time I’ve repeatedly wondered what purpose peer mentors actually serve. Everyone seems to know or have a story about a time an RA offered advice, or cracked the whip late on a particularly thirsty Thursday night—but examples of  peer mentors doing the same are few and far between.

According to the University, peer mentors are primarily responsible for helping students acclimate to the more rigorous academic demands of college. They’re meant to do so by holding office hours in residential academic success centers, “RASCs” for short, sharing their knowledge about “academics transitions topics,” like time management and test taking and “connecting students with members of the faculty.” RAs aren’t expected to fulfill the same academic role, but there is considerable overlap in the category of leadership, even in the University’s own description of these two distinct student staff positions. When you look at the duties as they exist, rather than how the University describes them, the overlap starts to look less like a Venn diagram and more like two concentric circles.

Student experiences with their peer mentors paint a picture of a clear trend—the practices of PMs vary enormously based on the character of the individual PM. Some are very attentive, create a GroupMe chat for their floor and engage all of their residents in conversation. Others are elusive, emerging to interact with other upperclassmen or to make it to their office hours but otherwise keeping their doors shut. Missing in all of this? I’ve yet to hear of one instance where someone actually went to their peer mentor’s office hours for homework help or academic advice and left feeling confident that they were directed toward success.

My floor doesn’t have a common room, so I often find myself settled in the RASC with my laptop, attempting to navigate my homework but inevitably distracted by conversation and the warmth of human companionship. As often as I inhabit the RASC, my friends and I are joined by a peer mentor who sits—clearly available—but in my experience never providing academic assistance. Should the University really be spending thousands of our tuition dollars to pay someone to hangout in the dorms with us?

While talking to one PM in my building about what she actually does, she said how she specializes in essay editing but has more or less acted as an informal therapist this year. Hearing this made me wonder about more than just why PMs are necessary when RAs exist, but why PMs are necessary when considering all the other academic help the University offers.

If peer mentors sign up with an academic focus in mind, should they have to deal with first-years pouring out their emotions when a professional therapist could be handling them instead at the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health? PMs are potentially supposed to help students find direction in their majors, but don’t students have academic advisors or Career Services to help them with that? They sign up to help students with schoolwork, but what about the tutors at the Learning Resource Center in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library? PMs could certainly help edit papers, but isn’t that what the Writing Center is for?

When so many of their listed and informal roles are already being performed in other departments, paying each peer mentor nearly $7,500 is a gross misuse of University funds.

I’m not the type to ask for help and in this instance that’s a good thing—considering there is a tissue-paper-thin chance that a PM would have any expertise on the subject that’s troubling me. Multiple times I have seen PMs tell students who they should talk to regarding academic questions, but peer mentors are simply not necessary if they function largely as intermediaries between students and those who can provide real help. A quick google search can provide the same answers.

It makes sense to me why students who form great connections with their PMs would value them and even why prospective PMs would like to see the position maintained. What I don’t understand is why the University would allow for this position to continue in the name of helping first-year students, when the primary benefactors are the peer mentors themselves.

Amelia Moran is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at aemoran@umass.edu.

Comments
6 Responses to “The problem with peer mentors”
  1. Peer mentoring is a great concept if practiced in its true sense. The problem is; students do not want to help their peers. The students of our time hardly pay the due attention to their own studies. Thus, we need more educators that are able and supportive enough to take care of the students. Thank you for this nice article!

  2. Adrien Hupin says:

    I struggle to believe that you, as a freshman, have gathered enough information on the UMass Peer Mentor role in the very brief time that you have lived at the University to draw the conclusion that they are a “gross misuse of University funds.” Perhaps try speaking with more students — when I was a freshman, our PM’s were approachable, friendly, and supportive. I expect many other students shared my experience. You criticize PM’s for providing resources and not answers, and yet it is in their job description to provide their students with an array of qualified resources to contact if ever they needed guidance. Let me remind you, peer mentors are only a few years older than you.

    Furthermore, why even attempt to comment on University finances? We can both be certain that there is a team of individuals working here at UMass who’s entire job is to track and monitor the school’s spending, down to the penny.
    I am sure that their comprehension of the budget far exceeds yours, and mine. Your tuition does not go straight to the pockets of peer mentors, the path of you dollars could not possibly be so linear.

    School is expensive. If the PM position gives students the opportunity to engage with their community, along with the benefit of a break on a pricey tuition, I am all for it. Let’s leave the University finances to those more knowledgeable before drawing conclusions.

  3. John Cusick says:

    As someone who has been both a peer mentor and an RA, I do agree that the jobs overlap a lot. You seem to be saying that one person could act as a resource for academic AND social concerns instead of both an RA and a PM. You aren’t wrong, one person could do this. However, I see the PM position as extra support for a population that needs it. Peer mentors are live-in staff trained to help first-year students, who need the most attention out of any other cohort of students. Why not have another point person for a population that is going through so much of an adjustment, both socially and academically? Why not have double the amount of programs, the RAs focusing on community building and the PMs focusing on academic resources? Why not have more student leaders on the floor that could connect with a greater volume of residents and offer more diversity? You are “not the type to ask for help” but clearly that is not the case for everyone. Just because you sat in the RASC and didn’t need to ask about Add/Drop (etc.), that doesn’t mean someone else won’t need a question answered. Google could answer so many questions but that doesn’t stop people from asking them and neglecting to look it up on their own. Yes, it depends on the individual peer mentor how important a role they actually serve, but I know a ton of RAs who don’t pull their weight and still get paid! Although I think it would be beneficial if all peer mentors received specific training on things like writing a resume, I think they still serve a real purpose being in the residence hall.

  4. Em says:

    Maybe you don’t need a PM because you’re confident enough to navigate this university on your own, but many first-year students have no idea that these resources are available to them. PMs do act as an intermediary, yes. While you think this is a gross mismanagement of funds, I disagree– PMs are the ones who help residents get the help they need and alert the RDs/LCGs to any issues that merit attention.

  5. Jay says:

    1. Peer Mentors is capitalized just like Resident Assistant is. You need to show some respect for those individuals who work hard to try and make your UMass experience better. My Peer Mentor was one of the most influential people of both my freshman year AND my UMass career.

    2. As you said, you’ve only been there a few weeks. I know many, many people who have had life-changing experience with their Peer Mentors, never mind the small, daily exchanges. You need to broaden your horizons with the people you’re talking to, and you need to give it time as well. One person’s experience with a Peer Mentor does not reflect everyone’s experience.

    3. Where are your sources? A vague “few and far between” doesn’t cut it for someone trying to be a reporter. Investigate, don’t estimate.

    4. Not every person needs academic help, but many do. It seems as though you haven’t needed to actively seek out help, but there are certainly others who need directions. What about when it comes time to pick classes and you want guidance or SPIRE confuses you? What about when you get into a group project and things don’t go as planned? What about when someone needs academic accommodations but feels too nervous to go immediately to a faculty member? The RA’s have a lot of duties on their own (and you seem to forget that these individuals are students too) and asking them to take on this more academic role would often put them in impossible situations. That’s why there’s a separation.

    5. While Peer Mentor’s often take the role of emotional counselor/ confidante, that is by no means their role. They job is to refer students to the ACTUAL therapists on campus (even walking them to CCPH sometimes) and to help students feel comfortable with taking their mental health into their own hands. Similarly, Peer Mentors aren’t paper editors– as you said, this is the job of the writing center– but they can certainly help you find what to look for, and they can help confused freshman figure out how to make appointments.

    In short, I’m glad you came in knowing how to interact with the campus on your own, but many people aren’t. Freshman year is scary! By writing this article and attempting to discredit the Peer Mentors, you’re speaking only for yourself and not understanding that there are people with experiences other than your own. You are three weeks or so into your UMass. Learn more stories and broaden your horizons before assaulting a group of individuals who do a fantastic job of assisting the new kids on campus. My Peer Mentor was crucial to my success– perhaps, by the end of the year, you’ll find that a Peer Mentor has been crucial to yours as well.

  6. Stephanie DaSilva says:

    I feel like you should have done more research or spoken with Peer Mentors before writing this article because this article to me sounds more like a blog post than an actual informative article. Being a Peer Mentor for all three years after my freshman year, I can first hand tell you that this campus position is worth it not only to Peer Mentors but to many UMass students. And just like many things in life, it might not be a good fit/help/etc. for everyone but it makes a great impact to the students who NEED the guidance and support.

    Peer Mentors can offer so much more to residents than just correcting your writing.. We point you in the right direction so you can get the academical, medical, emotional help you might need during your first year. We’re there as a steady hand; a person who can give a different perspective and some advice on what it’s like to be a freshman at UMass.

    And although you have not made a connection with your Peer Mentor (yet), Many PMs do build meaningful relationships with residents because both are willing to build a relationship in the first place. It’s very hard to get to know freshmen who seem shy, standoff-ish, or who simply do not want to talk to you. And yes there are some Peer Mentors who aren’t always around but you have to realize: We’re students too. We have our own lives to think about too. In my last year I had over 90 residents on my floor alone to worry about. And although I couldn’t make a connection with all of them, I tried my hardest to do so because I know how important having someone there who isn’t a RA or a roommate can be to some residents.( That isn’t only my type of thinking but many other Peer Mentors as well.)

    The most important thing to know is that the PMs who really love this job are grateful to be doing it and are happy that we might change a resident’s college experience to something positive and worthwhile. It isn’t only about having a stipend or other privileges.

    I could go on for days about how this article has so many misguided notions of what the purpose of a Peer Mentor is or why we should be a part of ResLife, but I’ll stop myself by saying that I understand where you’re coming from. But only being a freshman for a couple of weeks now, you still have a lot to learn about UMass. And next time please try to reach out to the people your writing is impacting if you want to get a better understanding of what to write.

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