The Peer Mentoring program was created to decrease inappropriate early attrition and promote academic success in PhD programs at Washington University in St. Louis. The purpose of the program is to facilitate relationships between more advanced PhD students and first- and second-year students. Ongoing peer mentoring programs in the form of Reading Groups provide similar support for later-stage graduate students. Additionally, the Peer Mentoring program can provide a system of support for vulnerable student populations, including but not limited to: underrepresented, dissertating, first generation, non-domestic, and students returning from off-campus research or leave.
Overview of Peer Mentoring
The Peer Mentoring Committee, which is funded by the Graduate School and advised through Rachel Pepe, Liberman Center Manager, exists to help all programs in their event planning, financial needs, mentor training, student involvement, and any issues brought to peer mentors that cannot be easily handled at the departmental level. They are advised through an Executive Peer Mentoring Committee. These Peer Mentoring Committee members are current or former departmental or reading group coordinators. At the departmental level, each peer mentoring program is asked to identify at least one coordinator who will be responsible for handling how the budget is used, transmitting any requests for reimbursement from the department’s peer mentors to the Liberman Graduate Center office (DUC 300), and for transmitting information from to the mentors or to all of the department’s graduate students. Within the department, coordinators and peer mentors form a network of students who are able to talk freely and help other students in any way that seems appropriate. However, we encourage all peer mentors to seek out the department chair and/or director of graduate studies so that faculty members are aware of the peer mentoring program; in some cases, departments have even contributed financial support to their peer mentors’ activities.
The Role of a Peer Mentor
What is a Peer Mentor?
A peer mentor serves as a resource—a helping hand, a sounding board, a referral service—providing both personal and professional support for students in the early stages of a graduate program. A good mentor will be familiar with departmental rules, expectations, and procedures, and, in the event the mentor cannot answer a specific question, will be able to direct students to those more knowledgeable. Although peer mentors are not expected to be equipped to deal with psychological crises, disputes with advisors, and other personal or degree-related issues beyond their training and expertise, they should be familiar with the people and services available to students who face these issues. Students usually become peer mentors in doctoral programs only after completing their second year. Note, however, that peer mentoring programs differ in size, structure, etc., from one department to another, so that this is not always the case. This handbook is designed to help peer mentors meet the needs of students in their department and navigate particular administrative procedures specific to the peer mentoring program.
What is the commitment to become a peer mentor?
Students who wish to become peer mentors are asked to commit to their departmental mentoring program for at least one year. Ideally, peer mentors would commit for two years, gaining experience in their first year as a peer mentor and passing on that experience to new mentors in the second. We encourage peer mentors to stay in the position as long as necessary to ensure that incoming students make a smooth transition into their program.
How should a peer mentor be available to their mentees?
Peer mentors are encouraged to be available in multiple ways, including offering students an email address, office location, and at least one phone number. The boundaries for phone calls can be set by each individual mentor. (For example, someone with young children may not want to be called late at night.) Basically, peer mentors should be accessible during reasonable hours for most business, and at unreasonable hours (like 3 a.m.) for emergencies only.
Students will be encouraged to approach peer mentors with any issues they would like to discuss, and these conversations will usually remain confidential. However, there may be occasions when a problem arises that the mentor is not equipped to deal with. On such occasions, the peer mentor should discuss options with the student such as consulting someone, either inside or outside of the department, for additional advice. It is up to the student to decide if it’s okay for the peer mentor to share any identifying or situational information with the person being consulted. Peer mentors should feel free to describe situations in a general manner to other peer mentors and to staff members in the Graduate School office and/or Student Health Services in order to get advice. However, peer mentors have an obligation to report any information regarding self-harm or harm to others, whether actual or potential, by the mentee; such reports must identify the mentee. Peer mentors also have an obligation to report any information received regarding sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, or sexual violence; such reports can withhold the mentee’s name.
The Peer Mentoring WUGO page hosts the peer mentoring home page, which introduces the program and includes a PDF of this handbook. Departmental peer mentoring programs choose how to publicize their specific activities. Always make sure to have the correct email addresses for new students!
Peer Mentoring Training
Coordinators and mentors are required to attend the Peer Mentoring annual training each spring. This training aims to give all peer mentors, regardless of their department, a concise overview of the peer mentor program and key resources on campus. Topics discussed include reimbursement policies, health and safety concerns, etc. In addition, peer mentors should educate themselve on departmental duties, and departmental peer mentoring coordinators may choose to hold training events for fellow peer mentors and/or for future coordinators. We strongly recommend that coordinators find and train their successors prior to first year students arriving on campus.
How does the budget work?
Peer Mentoring is funded by the Graduate School and will assist departmental peer mentoring programs with their financial needs by providing them each with a budget to be used via reimbursement. Peer Mentoring Coordinators are asked to submit a proposed budget in the early summer; generally, the Graduate School will notify departmental coordinators of their budget sometime between the start of the fiscal year on July 1 and the start of the academic year and will allow for a flexible use of these funds within the confines of the above-mentioned policies as well as the Reimbursement Policy.
Various Washington University Reading Groups have recently been reorganized under Peer Mentoring. This is due to a recognition that some of the most difficult times for graduate students occur in their final years when they are writing but past course work. No longer taking classes, students may feel isolated, depressed, and cut off from many of the social interactions they developed with other members of their cohorts. Moreover, later-stage graduate students may begin to feel that they have more in common with junior faculty, than they do with first year students. The Reading Groups thus serve an important role in helping keep later-stage students active and involved in the academic community, as well as helping forge transitions between graduate study and post-graduate academia.
Frequently Asked Questions
How and when should I initiate contact with my mentee?
If you are matched with a specific student or group of students, email or phone to ask when and if they would like to meet. At the first meeting you can discuss how often they would like to meet with you. We encourage all peer mentors to check in with their students at least once a semester. You should make sure all students are included in the community, especially students who are at risk (e.g. students who seem withdrawn, on dissertation fellowship, returning from the field or leave, participating in dual-degree programs, etc.).
What type of advice should I be prepared to give to students?
Students tend to ask how long it usually takes students in your department to complete a degree, what steps are necessary to complete a degree, things you have learned along the way towards completing your degree (perhaps things you might have done differently), how to work with advisors, etc. You may also be asked about the more personal side of the graduate school experience, like how to manage stress, cope with doubts about staying in graduate school, balance relationships with work, live on a graduate student budget, etc.
What do I do if the person I'm mentoring says that they think they might quit grad school?
Ask why! If it is something you have been through before, talk about your experience. Find out if it is actually the program, the field of study, or the profession that they dislike, or if they are having emotional difficulty. In the latter case, a referral to counseling services may be the most appropriate response you can make.
What should I do if I find that I may not be the best mentor for an assigned mentee?
If you feel as if you just don’t click with a student, discuss the situation with your peer mentoring coordinator. Hopefully, you will get some idea as to who might better serve the student. You can then introduce the student to this other mentor and explain why the other mentor might be a great person to consult about a particular issue. It is probably best not to drop the student officially but just to let the transfer process happen as naturally as possible. If severe mentor/mentee problems occur, consult the Peer Mentoring Committee members or a counselor at Student Health Services.
For how long will I be expected to mentor?
This varies among the students in your department. You might stick with some students for their entire graduate career, while others might not ask for mentoring advice after their first year; other students may connect with other mentors as their needs and interests change. The minimum commitment we ask for is one year, during which you might be involved with different students at different times. Ideally, each mentor would commit for at least two years so they can remain a resource for new peer mentors.
Creating a Successful Peer Mentoring Program
Identify your goals
Clarify your primary goals: Does your department require an even balance of academic and social support? Or is your job primarily social in nature? Make sure your projects and programs are geared toward your goals. Think big, but start small. While creating and maintaining connections between the entering graduate students and other members of the department is the top priority, the work of a mentor is creating as many opportunities for this to happen as possible. Take it one project at a time.
Foster an Inclusive Environment
Be sure to invite students in your department who haven’t specifically volunteered to be peer mentors. Mentors facilitate connections, but they don’t always have to be the person the mentees connect with. Try your best to have diversity in mentors so that all mentees have access to people they feel comfortable with.
Engage with other support structures
Build support from administrators, faculty, staff, other student organizations, and community members. Peer mentors provide an additional support structure while in graduate school, but it shouldn’t be an alternative support structure. Peer mentors should liaise with Directors of Graduate Studies, your program coordinator, and other faculty members. Everyone has the same goal: to facilitate a more successful graduate school experience for the newcomers to your department.
Resources for Peer Mentors
If you find yourself confronted with issues beyond your time demands or expertise, whether personal or professional, there are people and offices on campus that can help. Always start with your department if possible.
The Graduate School
The Graduate School website contains academic and policy information graduate students may have questions about. In particular, peer mentors should be familiar with certain contents of the Policies and Guides pages. Specific departmental policies can be found either in the Bulletin or in their respective websites.
In addition, peer mentors should refer international students to the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) for answers to questions related to visa status, work rules, etc.
The University Ombuds is a confidential resource for workplace concerns and conflict mediation. Jessica Kuchta-Miller, JD, is the university ombuds for graduate students and can be reached at 314-379-8110.
Student Health Services - Danforth Campus
The Student Health Services (SHS) website contains all of the information your mentees will want and need about the health services that come with the Student Health & Wellness Plan. The website also contains info on how to get a referral to a provider outside SHS, how to process claims, how to contact the plan administrator with questions, a health insurance guide for international students, etc.
Located in the Habif Health & Wellness Center in Dardick House on Shepley Drive, SHS includes medical, mental health, and health promotion services (see each tab on the SHS website for detailed information about each service). In addition to medical services, SHS offers a variety of mental health services for graduate students. Individual counseling is available for students to address personal concerns including adjustment to graduate school, stress, relationships, depression, and grief. Full-time students are eligible for up to 15 sessions each year; the first 9 sessions are free and additional sessions cost a small fee per visit. Counseling sessions can be scheduled online or through SHS at 935-6666. Free and confidential group counseling is also available. For more information on group counseling, please call 935-7253.
Student Health Services - Medical Campus
The Washington University School of Medicine Student and Occupational Health Services provides healthcare for students enrolled in the Department of Biology and Biomedical Sciences and other PhD programs at the WU School of Medicine. Visit their website for details on contact information, making appointments, available coverage benefits, after-hours services, and spouse/dependent insurance plans.
WUSM Health also provides mental health services for its students, including on- and off-campus psychological counseling. If you are in need of a counselor, you can obtain a list of available counselors from the WUSM Health website. The first nine visits are free, and on subsequent visits you will pay a small co-pay. Please check with WUSM Health Services for additional services and policies.
Relationship and Sexual Violence
Students with concerns about relationship or sexual violence should be directed to the Relationship and Sexual Violence Center. Kim Webb, the Director, can be reached during business hours at 314-935-8761 and after hours through WUPD at 314-935-5555 or SARAH at 314-935-8080. Kim and the Relationship and Sexual Violence Center can help with seeking medical care, counseling, emergency housing accommodations, reporting to the police, filing a complaint through the university or other immediate or long-term needs. The Center also offers a Green Dot training program that we recommend to all peer mentors and coordinators.
Helpful Financial Resources
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