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Student Mentors

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If people come to you with their problems and you wish you could do more to help, you may have the makings of a student mentor.

A mentor is a trusted counselor, tutor or coach. Student mentors help other students with their school work, relationship questions and life challenges.

Some universities offer mentoring programs for students who want to work with kids in elementary or high school. Others have programs where mentors introduce new university students to the campus, help students improve their study skills or edit papers.

Some high schools also use student mentors to assist their peers with high school life, or to help younger kids adjust to high school.

For example, at Prince of Wales Secondary School, high school senior student mentors, called peer counselors, help students in Grade 8.

"They're there to walk with kids -- not give advice -- but to be a big brother or sister in the school for our Grade 8 students," says Donna Pearson. She's the school's peer counseling program coordinator.

"With young people, they are often more likely to share concerns with someone they perceive is like them," says Rey Carr with the Peer Resource Network.

Carr says that's why more and more schools and post-secondary institutions are trying to increase the quality of help available in peer groups by training student mentors.

At Prince of Wales, Pearson interviews 80 students and selects 28 peer counselors each year.

The peer counselors at Prince of Wales are available for one-on-one homework help during a special class three times per week. The peer counselors help kids with their math problems and reading. Just as importantly, they may also help kids with their personal challenges.

"Having the [peer counselors] involved is so much healthier than counseling staff having to work through girlfriend problems," explains Carr.

Amy Foley was a mentor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She says about 100 students from her university are selected each year to work one-on-one with middle school students. The younger students are at risk of not finishing school and meeting their potential.

"It gives you a different perspective," says Foley. "Suddenly you realize your next-door neighbor is struggling and you weren't even aware of it!"

At the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee (UWM), every senior honors student is matched with three freshmen.

"Basically what we find is there's about 180 new students and all are matched up with a mentor. We find that about one-third find it was really helpful. Other students say they don't need it. But it's good to be there for those 60 who need it," says Ben Brzeski, a UWM student mentor.

There is such a need for good mentors that UWM also launched a professional peer mentoring service. Student mentors are trained over two semesters and receive six credits. They learn communication skills and practical know-how like how to build a web page, use e-mail and make PowerPoint presentations.

"It's a pretty decent-paying job," says Brzeski. He works five to 10 hours per week. "I might help someone edit their paper or improve their study skills."

Good mentors are not necessarily top students. Carr says it is more important that you know what it's like to face challenges. You need a desire to help your friends when they come to you with their problems.

"This indicates they're curious and motivated," he says. It's important to let the person solve his own problems, but you can be a sympathetic listener.

"It's life changing!" That's how Foley describes her experience as a mentor.

Three years ago, Foley was paired with a shy girl in the sixth grade who was getting involved with a bad crowd at her school.

"Now she's making honor roll all the time, and she's a lot more outspoken," says Foley proudly. "She wants to be a pediatric nurse."

Foley meets with her student, Riza, two Saturdays per month. She helps Riza with her homework and her vision of the future. "I've been a tool for her in academics and support to inspire her," says Foley.

For example, Foley recently took Riza to her home in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. Riza saw the house, the yard and the pool and called it a "Richie Rich" house. "Riza says, 'Can you buy me a home?' and I say, 'I don't need to, you'll be able to buy your own.'"

Foley's parents told Riza how they had applied for scholarships and worked their way through college into stable careers. "It was good," says Foley. "We could show her concrete ways it was possible."

Foley says the experience reminded her that not everyone has the same opportunities growing up.

Brzeski works as a professional mentor. He also volunteers as a mentor through UWM's honors program. He says both roles fit his personality. "I think there are people who could be labeled as helpers," he says. "I like to help. I'm a service-oriented, people-oriented person."

As a volunteer mentor, Brzeski is matched with three students who are entering the honors program each year. His task is to make himself available to answer questions about the university and the program. "I might say, 'There's a cool place on campus,' or, 'Don't forget you have to have your registration in by this time.'"

Brzeski says last year he really clicked with one student. "He was into music, as am I," he says.

Their common interest meant that Brzeski's student was able to talk more about school and the things he found intimidating. Brzeski says the experience helped him see how he can best help others.

"People are people and most times you have something in common, but that doesn't always come out in the first conversation. You have to work at it."

Leo Yu is a peer counselor at Prince of Wales Secondary School. He finds that common interests help him be an effective mentor to Grade 8 students at his school, in and out of the classroom.

"We have class three times a week for an hour where we help them with their assignments. Outside class we take them to lunch and stuff...," he says.

Yu remembers one instance when he was able to help a boy whose grandfather had died. Yu met the boy playing basketball.

The boy didn't know many people off the court, so Yu made a point of shooting a few hoops with him. "I wanted to see how he was doing and just be there for him," he explains.

The boy talked about his grandpa and how much he missed him. Yu was able to listen and reassure him that his feelings were normal. "I think it helped. Definitely," says Yu.

How to Get Involved

Visit your school guidance counselor to find out if your school has a peer-mentoring program. Be prepared to go through an application process explaining why you want to be a mentor. Successful candidates can also expect some initial and ongoing training.

If your school doesn't have a peer-mentoring program, maybe it's time it did!


Quick Mentoring Tips
Find mentoring ideas, including activities to do with your mentee, and encouraging phrases to use
Search for various volunteer opportunities near you

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