Thursday, September 29, 2011

Peer mentoring

By sharing each other's skills, resources and ideas, we can achieve great things. It's really refreshing to see this happening at Victoria University, where some unique programs are being put in place to help students help each other. I've been participating in a group of programs called SSSL (Students Supporting Students Learning), which involves the university taking on senior students as employees to help other students in a number of ways. My involvement has been with the Rover program, in which senior students wear special uniforms and look around the libraries and learning commons for students who look confused or anxious and make themselves available to help them, sometimes offering help directly, sometimes just standing nearby or saying hello. In this way, the Rovers help to solve thousands of problems faced by students every year, ranging from basics like using a computer, to complex inquiries about writing and research. The Rovers work as a team and when one Rover doesn't know the answer, they consult other Rovers or refer to specialists within the university. The program has been running for a number of years now and continues to be a huge success.

When I first started at the university as an undergraduate back in 2002, the Rover program had not yet been introduced. I remember feeling quite lost and confused. University life is very different to school and I didn't know about a lot of the social activities, clubs, societies, leadership opportunities and ways to get involved and meet people. I was lucky though, in that I noticed another student who was also sitting by herself apparently trying to work out how to fill out subject selection forms and so I sat down beside her, offered to help and we have been good friends ever since. Together, we shared everything we learned, both in the subjects we studied together and in our efforts to find our way around the university and its services. Together we gained confidence and got the hang of being students. This was peer mentoring in it's purest form. Sometimes just having someone with you can make trying new things and asking questions seem much less daunting.

I think if I was back there, being a young first year student, straight out of high school, I would probably be a lot more likely to talk to a Rover than to a librarian or a teacher, especially about the kind of trivial every day problem that so many people let get in the way of their studies. The fact that the Rovers are pro active and actually look out for you must also help a lot.

The biggest barriers must be faced by those students who come from non English speaking countries. For them, simple tasks like asking for directions can be really hard work and trying to understand the argumentative style favored in academic essay writing can be absolutely baffling for some. Often I get to sit with these students and have very interesting discussions about the relationship between culture and language and the way writing is used in their cultures. The kind of engagement and interaction that can develop is profound and I learn at least as much from them as they learn from me. I've learned several Asian languages, but it's not until one discusses the fundamentals of how knowledge is constructed within a culture that the structure of the language begins to make sense.

I wonder how students in other universities, without SSSL programs, learn to engage with each other. I suppose the lucky students who meet a good friend like I did will always have a peer mentor. There may also be those who miss out. Ultimately anything universities do to promote peer mentoring can only help them. The more students succeed, the more funding and recognition the university can obtain and the more students will go on to further study after their finish their bachelor's degrees. Since postgraduate students often have to work to support their student lifestyles, employing them as mentors makes a lot of sense and is something more universities should consider.


  1. This is a very intelligent set of observations. It could be interesting for a masters or other student to research the value of mentoring in the outcomes for foreign students or the wider questions of communication between Aust and foreign students. Ive heard that many overseas students never make friends with Aussie people

  2. Thank you. I do my best.

    I am a masters student and will be starting a minor thesis next semester, so that's a topic I will consider, among others. I've certainly seen some good examples through my work, which I may possibly be able to examine without impinging upon anyone's anonymity.

    Certainly, the issue of international students tending not to be friends with locals is concerning. People stay in their comfort zones and it's easy to stay with people who you find predictable. This points to laziness on the part of both the international students and the locals. There is also racism and there is fear of racism. I do plan to look into this further and write more about it.

    Thanks for the brilliant comment!