Beyond the challenges all new college students face, non-traditional students contend with a slew of extras. Those in Mount Saint Mary’s Weekend/Evening & Online College know all too well how hard the first semester can be.
“We always see college as being for the younger crowd,” says Octavio Campos ’21, who will graduate from WEOC in December with a BA in applied psychology. “My first thought was, ‘I don’t fit in, and I’m not going to do well.’”
A first generation college student, Campos had no one at home to help him navigate higher education. But nowadays, Campos guides other adult students as part of WEOC’s peer mentor program.
Launched in 2017, the program matches new arrivals with experienced peers who help them adjust to life as a non-traditional student.
Although WEOC faculty and staff offer many forms of support, new students gain an extra level of help from peer mentors, says WEOC Dean Suzanne Williams. “Some are returning to school after many years, so they may have questions they’re almost embarrassed about asking,” she says. Fellow students are well equipped to show them the ropes.
For instance, new students want advice on balancing school, work and family life, says Ivette Jackson ’18 and ’20, who mentored nine students while pursuing a BA in business administration and English through WEOC and an MA in humanities with an English concentration. Now pursuing a PhD in English at Claremont Graduate University, Jackson knows all about that juggling act: she worked full time and cared for a young family while a student at the Mount. “Mentees always asked, ‘What kinds of tips do you have to make sure I can stay on track? What kinds of resources do you use?’” she says.
Peer mentors take formal training before being matched with mentees. Each pairing lasts a semester, with a commitment to connect by any means — in person, via Zoom or by text, for example — at least twice a month, says Cara Nissen, retention manager for WEOC.
To give the relationship structure, mentors receive session guides with goals for each interaction. “In the first session, they build rapport, getting to know each other and setting some ‘smart goals,’” Nissen says. “Session two is a mid-semester check-in. The third session is following up, with a focus on resources the mentee might need.” But mentors and mentees can communicate as often as they like and discuss anything they find useful.
The focus isn’t always on practical advice. “Sometimes you have to be, not so much a therapist, but an ear to listen,” Campos says.
While this connection with a caring peer clearly helps new WEOC students, mentors benefit from the relationship too, gaining new connections, leadership experience and fresh perspectives.
“One of the things you don’t expect is how you grow from being a mentor,” says Jackson. “You think you’re imparting what you know, what’s worked for you. But you learn from the new students as well.”