Surviving the First Year: Peer Mentorship for Graduate Students

By Girard, Kristen S.; Musielak, Kayla A. | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Surviving the First Year: Peer Mentorship for Graduate Students


Girard, Kristen S., Musielak, Kayla A., National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


The early stressors and challenges faced by school psychology graduate students can lead some to experience somatic and/or psychological difficulties and even leave within their first year (Goplerud, 1980; Valdez, 1982) . One way to combat this problem andhelp students transition to graduate education smoothly is to provide each first year school psychology student with a peer mentor. This article will discuss how peer mentors, unlike faculty mentors, are particularly qualified to help address certain challenges faced by first year students. Given the evaluative and hierarchical nature of the faculty-student relationship, students often do not feel comfortable discussing certain concerns with their faculty advisors/mentors. Suggestions for the organization and implementation of formal peer mentoring programs are also discussed.

THE FIRST YEAR EXPERIENCE

Regardless of academic domain, the transition to graduate school can be difficult and full of challenges. Whether returning to school after years in a career, starting a family, or immediately after completing an undergraduate degree, graduate school requires most students to make major lifestyle changes. Many of these changes related to work, finances, location, living arrangements, and personal/familial relationships occur prior to the first day of class (Goplerud, 1980). Although the changes each student experiences maybe different, Valdez (1982) reported that first year students, regardless of sex, background, and ethnicity, experienced a number of these changes, which can lead to a significant amount of stress. As school psychology graduate students, and an assigned mentor-mentee pair ourselves, we can personally speak to several points made by the literature. We remember (too well) having to quickly transition from being "big fishes" at our undergraduate institutions to the youngest people in our first graduate school classes, and undergoing personal crises that significantly affected our abilities to concentrate on academics.

In undergraduate studies, expectations were typically related to coursework completion. In contrast, graduate-level coursework is about mastering content, gaining practical, specialized skills, and attaining appropriate professional attitudes and behaviors (Rapp 8c Golde, 2008). It is common for first year students to doubt their abilities when transitioning to graduate school (Gardner, 2005).

School psychology students may experience a variety of other challenges during their first year. They may experience difficulties with the increased workload and time constraints related to balancing coursework with assistantships, research, and practica (Goplerud, 2001; Bowman, Bowman, 8c Delucia, 1990). Social network building may represent another challenge, as meeting new friends and colleagues is critical to establishing oneself in the graduate school community (Gardner, 2005) . Finally, it has been suggested that the administrative/logistical aspects of graduate school, such as paperwork for class registration, internship applications, scholarships and funding, parkingpermits, etc., can be difficult to learn without proper guidance (Cusworth, 2001) . Again, these are not typical issues for which graduate students seek faculty mentor counsel.

The stress associated with the first year of graduate school, linked to high rates of early attrition in some programs, often translates to somatic and psychological difficulties (Goplerud, 1980; Lovitts, 2001). Large proportions of students experience anxiety, depression, and sleep problems; miss class due to illness; or experience recurrences of preexisting chronic illnesses (Goplerud, 1980).

HOW CAN PEER MENTORS HELP?

Few graduate students would dispute the benefits of the faculty-student mentoring relationship. These can include increased productivity in research and dissemination, as well as improved confidence and professional behavior (Bowman et al., 1990) . …

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