Author: Daphne Auza
Starting this fall, four students will join Emmons Student Wellness Center in establishing a new peer mentorship program. Emmons Senior Director Sara Semal and Director of Counseling Matt Calkins implemented the program at the recommendation of Active Minds, a student group that petitioned for the introduction of peer mentors to on-campus healthcare services last March.
The volunteer mentors will engage with Occidental students on issues related to their health and well-being. Each mentor will commit to at least three hours a week at the center while taking part in a training and supervision program administered by Emmons staff.
According to Semal, the peer mentors will serve as trained active listeners for students who may not feel comfortable sharing their health-related experiences with friends, faculty or a medical practitioner. Additionally, they will educate students on Emmons’ medical services and support students who wish to provide feedback on their experiences with the center.
Another primary responsibility will be health outreach, Semal said. Peer mentors will participate in promoting mindfulness and other self-care activities on campus and connecting students with off-campus medical and counseling services.
Semal and Calkins collaborated on the training curriculum for the peer mentorship role, requesting feedback from other Emmons health providers throughout the process. Although Calkins said that he and Semal will act as supervisors of the program, he emphasized the importance of student activity in changing Emmons’ services.
“I think that the most important factor in the timing of the program is connected to the activity of Active Minds,” Calkins said via email. “Last year, the Oxy chapter put together a petition that requested, among many things, a peer program. This emboldens and empowers us to take the next step.”
The Active Minds petition, released last March, asked for a mental health presentation during new student orientation, a peer mentorship program and the installment of a case manager at Emmons, according to Active Minds President Aaron Vogel (senior). Over the course of two to three weeks, Active Minds gathered over 550 signatures.
“We noticed that some students just were still having a very hard time, were still depressed. They just felt like Emmons didn’t work for them,” Vogel said. “We didn’t want anyone to slip through the cracks like that, so we decided something has to be done because there are students who are having a difficult time.”
Initially the only provision Emmons executed was the new student orientation presentation on mental health. This February, however, Calkins came to an Active Minds executive board meeting to announce that he and Semal were planning to implement the peer mentorship program.
“The roadblock was the people who allocate resources and funds, and it wasn’t Emmons themselves,” Vogel said. “Because it’s been Emmons, it’s been Matt, it’s been Sara who have gone ahead and started developing and implementing this peer mentorship program.”
Active Minds Co-Publicity Chair Dana Rust (junior) expressed enthusiasm that the peer mentorship program would encourage health advocacy.
“Something that’s really good [about the program] is that it gets students into the leadership of Emmons,” Rust said. “That’s really important—including the people who receive the services, having them have a say in the services that are given.”
Semal and Calkins are currently processing the mentor applications they received in March. Semal said they will be seeking candidates who are willing to actively listen and get involved in the long-term development of the mentorship role.
“We don’t want to put any expectations on the program,” Semal said via email. “We will make modifications as needed and with the input of the mentors and the student body.”
Students selected to be peer mentors must participate in the Senior Week leadership retreat, two-and-a-half days of leadership workshops and wellness activities that are also mandatory for programming assistants and resident advisors. An intensive, 40-hour-per-week training will take place during the two weeks before the semester begins. Mentors must commit to the position for the entire academic year.
According to Semal, the training will teach active listening, motivational interviewing skills and special topics like drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assault and medical health advocacy. Throughout the academic year, mentors will have the opportunity to learn from and work with licensed psychologists and medical practitioners.
Calkins said that, while the peer mentorship program provides numerous learning opportunities, it will hopefully serve as an effective bridge between Emmons and the needs of the student body.
“I believe the peer mentors will be extremely important in helping us understand the student experience more directly,” Calkins said via email. “Our activities and services will be influenced by the peer mentors, as they are with groups like SWAC [Student Wellness Advisory Council], Active Minds and other students who share their experience with us.”
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