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Peer Mentoring and U

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By David Derezotes, Professor and Director of the Bridge Clinic, College of Social Work, University of Utah

Test anxiety, papers due, pop quizzes, unread chapters, class presentations, missing flash drives, group projects, delayed text book orders, crashing laptops… and then we add in work and social stressors….

Research indicates that university students are at risk for engaging in such potentially dangerous activities as substance abuse, poor self-care (ramen is not a meal), and even overtly suicidal behaviors. The University Counseling Center, for example, reports a high number of U students are referred or are self-referred for mental health disorders (including depression and anxiety) or relational problems (such as divorce). But what about the struggling students who don’t seek professional help?

Typically, students are more likely to talk with their peers before they will approach teachers or other professionals, so an increasing number of colleges across the country have initiated peer mentoring programs – programs designed to help students cope successfully with the growing demands and stresses of undergraduate and graduate school life. Literature on peer mentoring programs shows they can not only help reduce the risk of dangerous student behavior, but can have other benefits as well, such as helping students create their own supportive friendships and communities.

In the spring of 2005, the faculty at the U’s College of Social Work approved our Peer Mentoring Program (PMP), designed to help prevent and respond to high-risk student behaviors. The College of Social Work is home to more than 400 undergraduate and graduate students, diverse in age, ethnicity, and background.

The Peer Mentoring Program utilizes about a dozen volunteer master’s-level social work students who are in good standing with the College, and as representative as possible of the diverse social work student body. The mentors participate in an ongoing training program, attend group supervision meetings, hold consultations when necessary, and are “backed up” by the PMP’s faculty advisor.

Each semester, the PMP students engage in prevention, first response, referral, and evaluation activities. Prevention activities include presentations during fall orientation programs for incoming students; lunch hour seminars for students, staff, and faculty; other student-oriented stress-reduction activities (such as yoga classes); and the posting of information around the College and on our website. First response activities include one-on-one mentoring, as well as group meetings held in response to situations as they occur. Referral activities occur when peer mentors feel it necessary to send students to other professions or services for additional help. Finally, evaluation of the PMP activities is done on an ongoing basis, with opportunities for scholarly publication of the findings and recommendations.

Since the College of Social Work prepares students to serve a variety of at-risk populations, our peer mentors are especially likely to benefit from the opportunity to help design, implement, evaluate, and participate in a peer mentoring program. The peer mentors who participate in the program report that they have gained significant skills and knowledge. As such, all of our peer mentors are eligible (with some additional requirements) to earn two hours of independent study credit for their two semester-commitment of peer mentoring work.

Many of our students across campus feel socially isolated and carry considerable stress, so other U departments may be interested in developing their own peer mentoring programs. Peer mentors can not only assist other students, but can also learn valuable life skills and values, useful in a variety of contexts after graduation. And regardless of whether or not we develop “official” peer mentoring programs, U students, faculty, and staff can all work together to make our campus community a more supportive and friendly environment.