The School of Information at San José State University requires all incoming, first-semester students enrolled in the program to complete a month-long course that introduces them to the websites, software, online tools, formatting styles, etc. that they’ll be expected to know and use throughout the rest of their time in the program. Some examples of coursework include setting up your Zoom account, attending a meeting, creating and adding to a WordPress blog, completing training sessions and their accompanying quizzes for the King Library, and correctly locating and citing a peer-reviewed article relevant to library and information science using APA 7th edition. While this is a fantastic introduction to the program for new graduate students, this course also offers a unique opportunity to other students further along in the program – the chance to be a peer mentor.
What is a mentor? I’ll start by giving a bit of information that was provided to the peer mentor group during our first meeting: Mentor was the name of the adviser of Telemachus from Homer’s Odyssey. As far as origins are concerned, I think that’s a fairly interesting one! Just that bit of information alone begins to build an idea of who a mentor is and what they do.
In terms of virtually peer mentoring incoming graduate students for a month during their first course, I’ll add another layer to the expected responsibilities of a mentor: peer mentors provide help from a position of equality and understanding to build skills and confidence. It’s easy to lecture someone and tell them what they should be doing; guiding students with empathy is more of a challenge (especially when deadlines are missed).
To tell you that being a peer mentor was the most enjoyable experience of my graduate career thus far would be an absolute lie. It was stressful, time-consuming, and patience-testing on a whole new scale. Keeping an eye out for emails and incoming assignments from 25 students (on average) is a heavy weight, but feeling responsible when they fail an assignment or miss a deadline is even heavier. Was it something that I didn’t say? Did I not give them enough time to read my announcements? Did I not respond quickly enough to their emails? It’s a lot of pressure, even with professors reminding us that we cannot actually make students do the work. With all of that to consider, I’ll admit that I did enjoy it – more than I’d expected to.
What was enjoyable about an experience that I just claimed was stressful? I refined a variety of skills that have been sitting in my toolkit; I built my own wall of confidence higher – brick by brick; and I finished 3 units in just over 2 months’ time.
Most importantly, though, I helped.
Do you remember when you first started your program, and there was that one assignment that you couldn’t understand? The deadline was approaching. Everyone else must’ve finished ages ago. It was just you – you and that one assignment. I remember that feeling vividly. It had been in that first introductory course in the MLIS program. I had been stressed and in a veritable frenzy trying to finish an assignment that I didn’t know how to even start. At the end of my rope, I emailed my peer mentor. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that she replied within 20 minutes, answering my question calming and concisely. My responding email was, to my memory, one of the lengthiest “thank you” notes I’ve ever written.
It was then, in the Spring semester of 2019, that I decided I would apply to be a peer mentor at some point before graduating from SJSU’s School of Information.
For anyone wondering if they should look into becoming a peer mentor, the answer is yes. Are you unsure if your program even offers this type of course? Research! That’s one of the practices that we are all familiar with, so put it to good use and find out!
Is peer mentoring, in any capacity, right for you? Realize that you’re going to have to make yourself available. (I spent the evening of my birthday this year grading assignments as they came in because it happened to be a due date for the students.) Know that you will have to communicate regularly with everyone involved – faculty, other mentors, and your students. Don’t make the decision lightly. Again, research your program and the options that they offer. Peer mentoring may not be a good fit for you and your schedule, which is perfectly fine! You won’t know until you research.
For fellow SJSU iSchool students, you can find more information about becoming a peer mentor in SJSU’s program here or in this article by a recent graduate, Havilah Steinman: “Peer Mentorship: An Opportunity to Strengthen Information and Communication Skills.”