The problem with peer mentors

By Amelia Moran

(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 [email protected]