The Peer Mentor Mindset

Mary Jones

As part of my Environmental Fellows Program placement with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Michigan (also known as DDCSP) this summer, I was charged with designing and leading a peer-mentoring program among our undergraduate scholars.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the program, DDCSP is a two-year-long summer fellowship that connects undergraduate students to research opportunities (in year 1) and internship placements (in year 2) in the environmental field at the University of Michigan and in the greater Ann Arbor area. Like the Environmental Fellows Program, it focuses on students from under-represented backgrounds in the field, including people of color, first generation students, and low-income students from colleges and universities around the country. 

Based on feedback from past participants, the peer mentor program aimed to strengthen support systems for incoming scholars while providing additional leadership opportunities to returning students. Through the program, ultimately we hoped to cultivate a vibrant network of University of Michigan DDCSP scholars and alumni that participants can draw on for guidance and support for years to come as they begin to enter the professional sphere.

Logic Model for DDCSP Peer Mentor Program

Logic Model for DDCSP Peer Mentor Program

As someone that loves structure, I wanted to make sure that we laid out clear expectations for the responsibilities of our first cohort of five peer mentors. I found myself fixating on numbers, including how many community events the peer mentors would lead, how many one-on-one meetings they should have with their mentees, how many times they should meet together as a peer mentor group, etc. As I watched the program unfold over the summer, however, I was reminded that the magic of mentoring often happens outside of these forward-facing tasks, shining in the most everyday circumstances. Take the following story: 

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The scene:

It’s the evening of the first day of our all-scholar weekend retreat at the Battle Creek Outdoor Education Center. All 40 of our DDCSP scholars, including first-year and second-year students, are lining up in the mess hall after a long day of activities in the hot sun. The room holds a dozen circular tables and is filled with the smell of newly-warmed beef and veggie patties. The students are exhausted, staring longingly at the hot food as the line inches them forward towards the counter.

As people start to sit down, they follow paths of least resistance, choosing seats with familiar faces. Almost like clock-work, the weary group seamlessly divides along predictable lines, self-sorting into the social cliques that have been slowly emerging. First-year students sit with first-year students, second-years with second-years.

Softly, one of the peer mentors boldly breaks ranks and plops their tray down at a table otherwise full of new, first-year faces. They smile, and despite the tired mood permeating the dining hall that evening, they initiate a conversation.

End scene.

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DDCSP Scholars successfully complete low ropes team building activities at their summer retreat in Battle Creek.

DDCSP Scholars successfully complete low ropes team building activities at their summer retreat in Battle Creek.

On first inspection, this instance hardly seems noteworthy. Observing this moment at the retreat, however, reminded me of that it is in the simplest, most commonplace of actions that we show what it means to be a mentor. Often, these choices are small, so small, that they don’t even register on our radar screen as acts of leadership. But their impacts can be huge. In the case of this peer mentor, as the retreat continued more students began to follow their example and seek out new people to interact with both at mealtimes and beyond. By the end of the weekend, the staff noticed that the ridged boundary between first-year and second-year of students had started to erode, and the group began feeling like a more cohesive whole.

One person, of course, cannot take all the credit for this shift, but they did make small, intentional choices that facilitated this building of community between the scholars. Unlike their “official” responsibilities of being a peer-mentor that I had spent so much time developing, these actions occurred out of the spotlight, behind the scenes.

This realization has prompted me to reflect on the fantastic peer mentors I have had in my own life and who have supported me from behind the scenes this summer as I navigated my fellowship and re-entered the job market. When I consider my own peer mentors, I think about the office mates I had at the University of Michigan who always wanted to know how I was doing, readily volunteered to help run our larger events and field trips, and would bring donuts to share during particularly busy weeks. I think about two of my good friends from graduate school that made sure the three of us Skyped every month to check-in about life, even when we kept needing to reschedule the conversation. I think about my own cohort of 2017 Environmental Fellows, sharing highlights and low-points of their summers on our group text-chain, always followed by a deluge of messages of affirmation, support and love.

Like the moment in the mess hall, all of these acts were simple gestures, baked into the everyday life. They involved people being attentive to the needs of others within hectic circumstances where it is so easy to be lost in your own experience.  More importantly, they required awareness, humility, and a willingness to step outside of personal comfort zones and bare-bones expectations of what it means to be a colleague, supervisor, and friend. 

As I wrap up my fellowship and provide recommendations on the peer-mentor program for next year, my mind keeps returning to Battle Creek, watching this student pick up their tray with a veggie burger and chips, deciding on a table to join at dinner. I am struck by the fact that their actions in this moment were likely not prompted by the prescribed list of peer-mentor responsibilities that I had so carefully crafted and communicated. More likely, it came from an internal drive to support others and build relationships.

This summer has reaffirmed for me that mentorship is not just about being a designated advice giver or leader of group activities. Instead, it is all about having a mindset towards serving others that underpins whatever required activities are laid out by any peer-mentoring program. It is this mindset that gives us courage to be kind through small, everyday gestures that lay the foundation for authentic, lasting support systems and relationships. Like so many things in life, it really comes down attitude.

Mary Jones graduated with a M.S. in Natural Resources and Environment (Environmental Justice) from the University of Michigan in 2017. She recently accepted a job offer at the Toxics Action Center in New England as a Community Organizer