On Monday, April 3, 2017, the Futures Initiative hosted its “Spring Symposium: Pedagogy, Research, and Social Change.” This day-long event featured seven sessions presented by City University of New York (CUNY) faculty, students, and administrators, highlighting recent accomplishments of the Futures Initiative.
I attended the 2:10-3:00pm session focused on the Futures Initiative Peer Mentors program. This session was organized as a panel discussion, with program directors Lauren Melendez and Mike Rifino serving as moderators. After introductory remarks by Melendez, a panel of five program participants responded to series of questions posed by the moderators and then fielded additional questions from the audience.
Melendez’ opening remarks provided a brief introduction to the Peer Mentors program, which exists to serve the needs of what has been termed the “new majority” of undergraduate students—students who are racially diverse, first-generation to attend college, and/or from underserved communities. The program connects CUNY graduate students with a cohort of undergraduate students from a variety of CUNY colleges, who in turn serve as peer mentors to their classmates. Melendez expressed that developing leadership skills and promoting unity across CUNY campuses are two important focus areas for the program.
Following Melendez’ introduction, the moderators questioned a panel of five undergraduate peer mentors about their experience in the program. When asked what they had gained from the program, they shared how serving as peer mentors had developed their communication skills, taught them how to work with people from diverse backgrounds, expanded their own viewpoints on important issues, and helped them establish a valuable network. Several of them agreed that the program had removed their perceived barriers to graduate school and made higher education seem attainable.
A major theme of the panel discussion was how the Peer Mentoring program had grown the mentors’ appreciation for CUNY. One panel member shared how CUNY had been her last choice when applying to colleges, but was the only school to which she was accepted due to her undocumented status. She went on to describe how her participation in the Futures Initiative Peer Mentoring program had made her proud to be part of CUNY, helped her realize that she was capable of succeeding in college, and sparked an interest in teaching.
During the open Q&A session with the audience, the panel expressed how they were surprised by their own ability to support their peers. One student described how rewarding it was to mentor a non-traditional student through all the stages of writing her first college essay, from creating an outline to providing feedback on the final draft. The group shared how playing the role of peer mentor had helped them cultivate qualities such as empathy, self-awareness, and acceptance of others
While these students’ experiences were specific to the Futures Initiative Peer Mentoring program, the discussion suggested the general value of incorporating peer mentoring into the classroom. Most of the discussion focused on potential benefits to mentors, such as those shared by the panel; however, one of the audience members cited evidence suggesting that peer mentoring may profit the rest of the class as well. For example, a recent study found that students retained information conveyed by peers better than when that same information was communicated by a professor. A key take-away from this session was that peer mentoring is a powerful pedagogical tool that can serve as meaningful development to mentors while at the same time enhancing student learning.
Additionally, the panel members at this event underscored a few criteria for maximizing the effectiveness of peer mentoring. First, mentors should be connected with one another, ideally in a small cohort, to provide in-group mentoring to each other. Second, the university should provide mentors with oversight and support to keep them accountable to their assigned roles and responsibilities. This could be in the form of an institution-level program (such as the Futures Initiative) or a department-specific structure. Finally, while peer mentoring can be beneficial in any context, it may be especially helpful in introductory courses where students are new to the college environment and the dropout rate is highest.
More information about the Futures Initiative Peer Mentoring program is available on their program website. For a broader view on how to design a student-centered classroom, including such tools as peer mentoring and peer learning, instructors can refer to this blog series by Cathy Davidson of The Graduate Center, CUNY.