The mission of the Student Access and Success office at Lehigh University is to expand access for all underrepresented groups, with a focus on first generation and lower-income students. As part of that mission, all first-year students are invited to join the Mentor Collective peer mentorship program, with 70% participation planned for Fall, 2019.
As one of our oldest programs, we asked Dr. George P. White, the inaugural Managing Director of Student Access and Success at Lehigh, to reflect on the role peer mentorship has played in his overall student success strategy.As Managing Director, George is responsible for developing and implementing university-wide strategies that meet the needs of first-generation and low-income students in recruitment and admission, financial aid, student life, academic coaching and advisement, and postgraduate support.
What is your vision for the student experience at Lehigh University, specifically for newer members of the Lehigh community?
We’ve been particularly focused on how to successfully onboard new students, whether they are freshmen or transfer students such that we’ve removed as many barriers to their success in that first year as possible. We consider peer mentorship an important component to help with that. One of the things that we know from talking to our own students is that they tend to listen more carefully to their peers than they do to their professors. They seek advice from people who have gone through similar experiences.
How did you know peer mentorship was the solution that your students needed?
I spent all last fall having small group and one-on-one discussions with students. I would ask them, “Who within the institution has helped you traverse some of the issues that you've had?" Sometimes they mentioned the Office of Student Life, the Residence Life Office, or an academic advisor, but consistently, almost every student mentioned another student. We had already made the decision to head in the direction of mentorship, but that sealed the deal.
Do you think enhancing peer support in this way will affect the larger community dynamic of Lehigh?
I hope so. We had pockets of mentoring here for years unbeknownst to me and now we're beginning to look at a more unified approach to mentorship on the campus. The Mentor Collective program has encouraged cross-university conversations around articulating a mission for how mentoring fits into the overall educational process here at Lehigh.
By launching the Mentor Collective program, it allowed us to "mass customize" student support and use the strengths of our existing programs instead of starting from scratch. Ultimately, we have our own approach to peer mentoring that students can then take away with them into the work world.
Finally, when you look back ten years from now, what impact do you hope peer mentorship will have on the student experience?
What I hope will happen is that the early intervention of a peer mentor -- interacting pre-enrollment, having that first contact as early as late May or early June -- will reduce some of the anxiety and stress that is a result of leaving home, moving to a new environment and, for certain populations, being a stranger in a strange land.
My hope is that it reduces that anxiety to the point where students can focus more on academic and social growth and less on trying to figure things out and survive their first couple of weeks. Ideally, that will then help us increase our long-term retention so more students stay, graduate, and feel good about the experience that they had.
I really believe that having a mentor who is empathetic to a student's experiences and can provide the necessary support and information, will help accomplish that. My goal is that this program also teaches our students how to effectively be mentored so that they continue to seek mentors throughout their remaining years at Lehigh and then professionally, to enhance their success as employees when they go out into the workforce.