Assistant Director for Student Engagement, CEWiT
George White, leader of student access and success at Lehigh University, shares his vision for his newest student success initiative. Following extensive research demonstrating the impact of peer-to-peer support on the student experience, George has taken on the task of building a personalized and scalable peer mentorship program to further improve the Lehigh student experience.
What is your vision for the student experience at Lehigh University, specifically for newer members of the Lehigh community?
One of the things we’ve been looking at is how to successfully onboard new students whether they are freshmen or transfer students and then support them in that first-year experience so that we’ve removed as many barriers for their success as possible. As we think about a peer mentoring program, we see that as a component not the component to help with that. But an important component because one of the things that we know from talking to our own students is that students tend to listen more carefully to their colleagues than they do to their professionals. They tend to seek advice from people who have recently gone through similar experiences.
What advice would you give to peers at other institutions seeking to understand whether mentorship is a good potential solution?
I spent the whole Fall having small group and one-on-one discussions and interactions with students. I asked them to tell me their stories. 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 that we were heading in this direction but that sealed the deal.
How can other institutions assess whether or not it is the right time to try building or expanding a mentorship program?
In talking to peers at other universities, what seems to be driving the movement is a subgroup of a student population. My original plan was to launch peer mentorship for first-generation students because at a place like Lehigh they tend to feel more like a fish out of water. As we began to have conversations with faculty, staff, and our administrative team, the feeling was that if it makes sense for that group of students, it probably make sense for other groups of students. We were going to launch for a total of about 450 students and now, because we’ve said from an equity standpoint all students may benefit, we are launching with as many as 1250 students. I think we’re doing the right thing.
When you look back on this ten years from now, what is the impact that you hope peer mentorship will have on the student experience?
In our office of Student Life and Student Affairs, we have a whole division that is focused on the first-year experience. They manage the mandatory summer orientation and a pre-orientation summer program that we call “Prelusion.” This program encompasses up to 22 different operations, everything from upward bound, to service learning in the community, to english-literature-based and historically-based programs. During the academic year, all students participate in what we call 5 by 10 seminars. The incoming freshmen need to engage with a minimum of 5 experiences in the first 10 weeks. Those could be seminars, could be joining a club -- it’s our way of knowing that they are learning beyond the classroom. For our first-generation and low-income students we have a pre-matriculation program that has been fairly small in the past at 25 students; this summer we’re increasing it to 45 students. We give them a 3-week college-like experience; they take coursework, do a financial literacy seminar series, do a "Living Life at Lehigh" experience, they learn the difference between casual, business wear, etc. That program has been very successful; on average, we retain about 95% from 1st to 2nd year. First-generation students are retained at about 88% and with the last two cohorts that have gone through this program it has been 100%. We started with that group and [asked ourselves] what made the difference. [The] students said it was connecting with other students, including peer tutors, TAs, and RAs. That led us to think, "Wow! If that component of the program is having that large of an impact, we should be looking at that for the broader student population."
As far as the culture of the larger community that comprises Lehigh, do you think enhancing peer support in this way will affect the larger dynamics of the people?
I hope so. We had pockets of mentoring here for years unbeknownst to me and what’s been a plus to this [partnerships] is that we’re now beginning to look at a more unified approach on the campus. We have an NCAA mentoring program that is nationally recognized for our athletes. The College of Business has had a program for the last 3-4 years that they’ve been building and growing. But some colleges, like the College of engineering, have nothing. The launching of Mentor Collective here has helped have a cross-university conversations that is helping us to begin to articulate a mission for how mentoring fits into the overall educational process here at Lehigh. Another hope that I have is that by launching the program and allowing it to be launched in a way that allows mass customization -- it will allow us to use the strengths of some of the programs that we already have in place and not throw them away but incorporate them into the umbrella so that we will ultimately have our own approach to peer mentoring that people can then take away with them into the work world.
Could you share an examples of those customizations?
Our Hawks Program requires all incoming freshmen to have a peer mentor. That mentor has been assigned at the college level; they train their mentors, they run workshops with the mentors, and they have them meet with their mentor groups every other week. They have a 1-6 ratio that they use and their topics tend to be more career and academically based. They know that I’m really interested in supporting the first-generation students so what we’ve agreed to is that they will have all their mentors be part of the Mentor Collective and get the training and use the Shearwater material. They will [move to support the first-generation student population], add a few more mentors, and add some of the Shearwater curriculum into their program. Now we get the benefit of enhancing their training and also taking their work beyond just career and academic and focusing on some of the social/emotional engagement work that is built into the Shearwater curriculum. The advice that I would give other institutions who are thinking about moving forward is that it takes time to build that relationship and that trust. They could have just as easily said no we’re sticking with where we are. But we’ve worked through it so that they now feel that their program is not an add-on or that they are being forced to do something that they didn’t want to do but they see it as a value add. If you want to truly build an integrated culture where mentorship is not seen as forced on anybody, it’s going to take a lot of time.