Author: Lena Smith
Emmons Wellness Center launched a new Peer Mentor program this semester. The program consists of four student volunteer mentors who offer one-on-one conversations with students looking for guidance or someone to listen. In addition, they can help students better understand Occidental’s system of supportive resources.
The program was created to give students an alternative to traditional counseling. The Active Minds club and the Student Wellness Advisory Counsel drafted an initial plan for the mentoring service during the 2014–15 school year. Students who first proposed the idea wanted to provide a program that could help their peers adjust to college life or seek advice from someone other than a counselor.
“We all benefit from talking about ourselves,” Peer Mentor Gillian Binnie (senior) said. “We’re someone you can talk to, say, if you had a fight with your friend, but you don’t want to call in and schedule a counseling appointment just because you had a fight with your friend.”
The four mentors went through extensive training with Director of Psychological Services Matt Calkins and Senior Director of Student Wellness Services Sara Semal. During the last few weeks of the summer, the students learned about the systems in place at Occidental for helping others with different needs. They began by learning about the Culture of Care, the supportive network of administrators, faculty, staff members and resident advisors, of which the Peer Mentor program is now a part. With this knowledge, the mentors are able to refer students to relevant services on campus depending on each student’s situation, according to Calkins.
“Maybe that means talking about how to call a doctor, maybe an off-campus specialist, how to make an appointment, how to use your insurance card,” Calkins said. “Peer Mentors are comfortable sitting with a student and participating in that call.”
Although they offer a similar service as the counselors at Emmons, the Peer Mentors are distinct in that they have no certification or professional training. According to Calkins, they have competency in the skills they were trained in — mainly active listening and discussion techniques — not expertise.
“We’re not counselors,” Binnie said. “This is not therapy.”
According to Peer Mentor Rosie Silber-Marker (junior), the program is a private service; the mentors only share the content of their conversations with their supervisors, Calkins and Semal.
To avoid unwanted disclosures of information under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), mentors only record when and with whom each mentoring conversation took place. The records of these conversations receive the highest level of privacy for educational records under FERPA, Calkins said.
Because the Peer Mentors are not “responsible employees,” they can also offer privacy from Occidental’s administrative procedures. They are exempt from the Title IX requirement to submit Student Early Alert Notice (SEAN) reports if they learn of something that threatens the well-being of a student, according to Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones. Most Occidental employees, including Resident Advisors, are required to submit these reports.
The students serving as Peer Mentors for the 2015–16 school year are Binnie, Silber-Marker, Raina Seigel (junior), and Joaquin Magana (senior). They applied and were hired at the end of the spring 2015 semester. According to Semal, the mentors are thoughtful and approachable students. They all had to sign a privacy agreement in order to begin working.
As part of the program, the mentors must meet with their supervisors once a week to discuss the conversations they have had with mentees. They receive a steady input of advice from the supervisors about how to talk about particular issues and how to continue to improve their listening skills. This support system is similar to advice all professional therapists receive from their peers, according to Semal.
The mentors also have the opportunity to discuss situations that may have emotional implications for them or be bigger than they feel comfortable handling alone. In such situations, the supervisors are able to decide whether it would be better for a counselor, rather than a Peer Advisor, to work with a particular student.
“They don’t talk to us so that we know everything or so that we have control over everything,” Semal said. “They talk to us so that we can give support and guidance for their work with the student.”
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