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How to be a peer mentor

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How to be an effective peer mentor

You may have read this far, and decided you would like to put your experience of student life at the disposal of someone more junior. How can you do this effectively?

You need first to find out what schemes there are at your particular institution, either through your own department or through a central resource responsible for student welfare. You will then need to fill in an application form, stating your reasons for wanting to be a mentor, and probably go through some sort of selection process (see above). If successful, you will also probably be required to attend training.

Skills and qualities

Although the precise form of contact may vary from programme to programme, the skills and qualities you need to develop to be an effective mentor and the same.

Commitment

You need to make a commitment to the relationship: you need to be prepared to be part of someone's life for an extended period of time, helping them through tough decisions and sometimes crises, and to make the best of their lives.

The relationship may be relatively short-lived if the mentee settles down fairly quickly, but in general it should last as long as the latter feels necessary.

It goes without saying that you need to be reliable: set times for meetings, and stick to them.

Active listening skills

Listening is one of the most important mentoring (and life) skills. You need to develop the ability to be an active listener, which involves:

  • Giving your mentee your undivided attention, and showing that you are listening by maintaining eye contact, and by body language such as nodding and smiling.
  • Not being judgemental: for example, if someone tells you they want to quit after the first week, don't immediately come in with counter arguments. Ask questions for clarification, and from time to time provide brief summaries. That way, the mentee will feel that they have the space to explore their feelings and thoughts. This will help them feel relaxed, and be in a frame of mind to respond to your suggestions.
  • Being respectful and responding appropriately. Be open and honest about your own opinions, but do so with respect for the other person's point of view. Recognize that there are other ways of doing things and that your own ideas may not always be right.

Problem solving

Being a good listener does not mean that you accept everything that the mentee says. Your role is also to help the mentee work through problems and come up with appropriate solutions. You will need to make sense of a number of possibly conflicting issues and suggest a number of alternatives.

Empathy

This means the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes and feel what they are feeling, even if you have not gone through that particular experience yourself.

Knowing your limits

It is very important to remember that you are not the mentee's only source of support. Resist the temptation to solve the problem yourself in an attempt to appear supportive. If the problem is beyond your knowledge or one where you possess minimum experience, it is much better to pass it on to a more appropriate resource.

Remember that your role is to provide general support, and not to be, say, a counsellor or a financial adviser. Trying to provide advice or help which is beyond your competence will do more harm than good.

On the other hand, you need to make sure that you refer them to the right resource, so you will need to listen carefully to determine the nature of the problem, and if appropriate consult with the other source first yourself. If doing so, make sure you have all the facts.

Facilitation

You need to facilitate the ability to solve problems, and in a group situation, discussion. If you are part of a "peer-assisted learning" or curricular peer mentoring scheme, you will need to facilitate an environment in which learning can take place.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality is the basis of trust. What is discussed between you remains confidential. There are exceptions to this, however, if you feel that the mentee's health and well-being are at stake.

Examples of such exceptions would be if you thought the mentee was at risk of self harm, or of leaving the course.

Running group sessions

Sometimes, you will be acting as mentor to a group of students, in which case you will need to run group sessions.

  • Choose a venue, which can be an informal location such as a common room or cafe (avoid venues that serve alcohol unless you are sure that all your mentees will feel comfortable with this).
  • At the first meeting, encourage people to introduce themselves by saying something about their background. Consider using an icebreaker.
  • Remember, that while it is appropriate to share your experiences, you should not dominate the meeting. Your role is as a facilitator, enabling mentees to express their concerns, and ownership of the meeting should rest with them.
  • It may be appropriate to agree the topic(s) for the next meeting at the current one.
  • If this is the case, then you will need to do some homework and make sure you are aware of the relevant university services, procedures and regulations.
  • As with one-to-one mentoring, confidentiality is important. Make sure that the group understands that anything said in the meeting will be confidential.