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UT Austin students take a selfie on campus

UT for Me: Peer Mentorship for College Success

Guest Author: Sridevi Rao

Getting through college isn’t easy, but it can be even harder for students who feel that they’re in it alone. For first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color, knowing that other students like them have been through the same challenges and come out successfully on the other side can make all the difference. This is the power of peer mentorship, which connects students with knowledgeable, well-trained peers who can relate to their experiences both inside and outside the classroom.

These peers, known in our program as peer ambassadors, are equipped to connect students with advisors or additional resources. But their own coaching, commiserating, and common ground sometimes offer all the support that another student needs. As students themselves, they understand the challenges their peers may be facing, the kind of support that can help, and the best way to get the word out to others. And as an extension of our team, they make it possible for our small staff to provide individualized support to thousands of students across a large university.

At UT for Me – Powered by Dell Scholars, which supports college persistence for Pell-eligible undergraduates at The University of Texas at Austin, peer ambassadors are vital to our program’s success. Learn more below about how they help build student engagement, provide one-on-one coaching, and advance our mission of supporting every UT for Me student to and through college graduation.

Becoming a Peer Ambassador

Students apply to serve as a UT for Me peer ambassador because they want to help others following in their footsteps. These students have completed at least one year of UT for Me or the Dell Scholars program and most are upperclassmen. Often these programs have had an impact on their own lives, and they see the role as an opportunity to pay it forward.

Peer ambassadors receive comprehensive training to ensure UT for Me students receive the quality of support they need to succeed. During onboarding, they are introduced to FERPA, HIPAA, and Title IX, ensuring they are prepared to handle sensitive student information with care (in addition to mastering the lingo of higher ed). They are also experts on the resources available through UT for Me and university-wide, helping to make sure students understand where to turn for support.

Building Student Engagement

After incoming students are invited to participate in UT for Me, our team gets to work engaging them right off the bat so they know we’re here to support them. The ambassadors play an important role during freshman orientation, joining our staff to provide a warm welcome to new students and answering all their burning questions. Which are the best dorms on campus? Is Calculus II really as tough as it seems? Students place a lot of trust in the ambassadors’ first-hand knowledge.

Student engagement doesn’t get any easier after orientation. With so many competing demands for their time, and as many students are living independently for the first time, we have to cut through the clutter to keep our program top of mind for students and encourage their participation. In collaboration with our team, the ambassadors develop programming and content that helps UT for Me build a sense of community, connect students with helpful resources, and provide inspiration to persevere through the challenges.

During the pandemic, the ambassadors turned to Zoom for social events featuring online games, trivia, and even a Halloween costume competition (truly a highlight of the semester!). The chance to win fun prizes is always a good draw, but we found that students were also eager to participate and meet other first-year students. For those who were social distancing or attending classes virtually, campus tours on Instagram Live and social posts introducing their peers helped provide a sense of community. Our approach will evolve as students return to campus next fall, and hopefully the ambassadors will be hosting in-person meet-ups before long!

Peer Mentorship

At the heart of our approach, UT for Me is designed to provide personalized support to every student in the program. This includes academic and financial aid advising, but also guidance to address the personal and school-life challenges that can impact their time in college. For our initial meeting with each student, they are matched with either a program coordinator or ambassador based on their major and any persistence risk factors they may be experiencing.

When it comes to student support, the peer ambassadors offer a unique perspective and can relate to what their fellow students are going through, and they also help increase our capacity as a program to make sure we connect with every UT for Me student. During one-on-one meetings, the ambassador will learn more about the student’s progress, long-term goals, and any challenges, keeping detailed notes to share with the team. If any issues are raised during the conversation, they will schedule a second meeting with a member of the program staff to ensure all questions and concerns are adequately addressed.

This fall, UT for Me welcomes its second cohort and grows to a community of nearly 5,000 students. At the same time, our team of ambassadors will grow from four to thirteen, giving us much greater capacity for new programming and engagement opportunities. Additionally, after a year of virtual support, the ambassadors will be staffing our new lounge on campus, a place that UT for Me students can call home.

What makes peer mentorship so effective? It’s not just about social media savvy and first-hand experience with dorm life. When it comes to our ambassadors, it’s about the heart they bring to the work. They can relate to the challenges that their peers have overcome to enroll in college, and they recognize the challenges that are still to come along the path to a degree. They also know what it means to have support along the way. Getting through college isn’t always easy, but with support from our ambassadors, we can provide the support system to make it possible for every student we serve.

Photo at top: ©The University of Texas at Austin.