College students who are interested in assisting and supporting their peers with disabilities are an important piece of the overall support plan within a college program for students with ID. They can offer academic support in and out of the classroom, social support on campus and in the community, and residential support in college dorms and apartments. Peer mentors may be paid through work-study or other funds, may earn community service or course credit, or they may volunteer for that role.
It is important to note that support provided by peer mentors should be coordinated through the program. For example, peer mentors should be supporting the student to advocate for accommodations in the classroom but there should also be communication with the faculty member directly from the program so that everyone is on the same page about why the student is taking the class and, if that class is being audited, what the student’s goals are and what modifications are needed.
College students who are to act as support for their peers with ID should fundamentally understand that they are not the boss or supervisor, but rather that being a peer mentor means entering into a mutually beneficial relationship where mentor and mentee are learning and growing together.
Look for peer mentors who exhibit traits such as:
• Maturity and professionalism
• Patience and understanding
• Eager to learn
Experience shows that successful peer mentor have and/or are supported to develop these skills and attitudes:
• Setting high expectations
• Knowing how to balance fun while being a good role model
• Can talk through issues with students in a calm and adult manner
• Have a willingness to take on leadership roles and use problem solving skills
• Enjoy working with a team
• Know how to establish boundaries
• Understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality.
Being a peer mentor can be fun, but students need ongoing support and communication from staff and each other to stay invested in acting as a peer mentor.
Peer mentors can be recruited through college-wide events that are designed to inform all students about clubs and campus activities they can be involved in. Mentors are sometimes recruited by faculty offering peer mentoring as a community service or learning activity as part of their class assignments and activities. Be sure that the opportunity to work as a peer mentor is well advertised on your campus.
To retain peer mentors, it is important to offer on-going training and accessible supervision so that they know who to go to when they have questions or concerns. Show appreciation for their time and acknowledge their importance to the students and the program on a regular basis. Look for ways to use the university’s learning management system to stay connected beyond office hours or in-person meetings to connect mentors with each other. Being thoughtful and purposeful with these retention strategies will allow mentors to feel supported, connected as part of a team, and recognized as a valued member continuing to make a difference.
Peer mentors will feel more empowered when they know the expectations as well as when they are needed most. While some things in college happen naturally and those naturally occurring events should be supported and encouraged, having peer mentors scheduled during times when students need the most support can be valuable and less stressful for everyone involved. A schedule gives both mentors and mentees a clearer picture of when they are most needed and when support is available. Programs should strive to be transparent and flexible with peer mentor schedules and find a communication system that works for them to communicate their availability and volunteer preferences. This can be a self-designed scheduling process using an online program like Google Docs or Forms, or a packaged employee scheduling service such as When To Work . Some system that shows when mentor support is needed that allows mentors to sign up for blocks of time, is available on demand and is flexible will really help organize peer mentor time.
A peer mentor application can ask several types of questions depending on the focus area. The application can also be accompanied by a current resume before interviewing potential peer mentors. Basic information to collect on the application is: name, contact information (email/phone), professional references, and why they wish to be a peer mentor. Additional information may vary but could include previous experience working with individuals with disabilities, level of involvement desired as a future peer mentor, and their overall strengths. A sample peer mentor application can be found at here.
Working as a peer mentor has been shown to enhance personal satisfaction, support the development of new skills, and even change overall perspectives. Many studies have evaluated the impact of peer mentoring on attitudes and expanding inclusive practices. Here are two more recent articles that examine these characteristics.
• Added Value: Perspectives of Student Mentors working within a University Level Inclusive Education Program
• Impact of an Inclusive Postsecondary Education Program on Implicit and Explicit Attitudes Toward Intellectual Disability
Yes – the main focus for peer mentors is to provide initial training and promote independence and then fade support more as students with ID gain skills needed in their daily routine. This Grab and Go Practice provided by Judi Bean and Maria Paiewonsky offers great ways of fading support as a path to independence.
This really varies. Peer mentors must have patience and flexibility as days will never really look the same. Some days are predictable while many days remain unpredictable. Peer mentors can wear many hats in areas such as academics, daily living, social coaching, community navigation, budgeting, and time management skills to name a few. Here is a great Grab and Go Practice of what a typical day in the life of a peer mentor might look like.
Technology is a great tool to support college students with ID. Peers are often the best people to share and show how to use helpful technology, as they are likely using it every day themselves! Helping others learn to use relevant hardware and software to be more independent is one of the most impactful things a mentor can do. Technology can range from tablets, smart phones, apps, and other software. Check out this webinar on supporting college students with ID using technology.