In this post, Dr Neil Speirs reflects on twenty years of peer support. Neil is Widening Participation Manager. This post is part of the Building Community Learning and Teaching Enhancement Theme.
It was a wet and breezy October day, the passing cars with their windscreen wipers in furious back and forth motion. I was on my way to meet the first cohort of students taking part in a new widening participation project. The new project was all about peer mentoring. I had twenty first-year students who had signed up to take part in the pilot year, along with 20 senior students that would take on the role of mentor. I arrived at – what used to be called – the William Robertson Building, folded my umbrella and headed in. I still remember the discussion that we had that afternoon, twenty years ago. In particular, I recall how one of the student mentees told me “Neil, I am so glad that I now know that there are staff and students at this institution that actively care for and are interested in me, what I do and how I feel”.
Relationships of solidarity
From the outset, the project has always taken a campus ecology approach (Banning et al, 2001). One that strives to create the environmental conditions where widening participation students can flourish and excel. The project did not emerge from a deficit model of our students. The creation and development of conditions for all of our students to succeed should be normal practice across our institution in pastoral and learning and teaching spaces. Unfortunately, as it was twenty years ago, this is not uniformly the case across campus. This inconsistency can create gaps in pastoral care and pedagogical practice, which results in environmental conditions that do not allow our students to flourish and excel. Peer mentoring occupies these spaces, so that staff, mentors and mentees can all stand together in relationships of solidarity that are built from collective labour – not the glorification of entrepreneurial individualism. It is from here that our students can begin to engage fully with the emancipatory nature of education, which can only be found ‘in the fellowship and solidarity of community’ (Darder, 2015).
Formal mentoring relationships and peer relationships have several common attributes. They ‘both have the potential to support development at successive career stages’ while also providing a ‘range of career-enhancing and psychosocial functions’ (Kram et all, 1985). In conventional mentoring relationships, there is very often a strong hierarchical structure. However, in peer mentoring relationships this is not the case. In fact, peer mentoring relationships provide ‘a forum for mutual exchange in which an individual can achieve a sense of expertise, equality, and empathy that is frequently absent from traditional mentoring relationships’ (ibid). You can perhaps begin to see how peer mentoring as a model of practice fits with the relationships of solidarity that have already been mentioned. This is a key element of what we have done over the last two decades and the success within.
As well as being built upon relationships of solidarity, another key part of the project, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, is revealing the rules of the game – the game being all that encompasses university life. If you have little or no family experience of higher education, then the campus landscape can be disorientating – there are many questions to answer. How do we navigate and access the privileged networks of campus? Do I fit in? How do we make sense of the symbolic capital that flows from success achieved outside of the classroom in the extra and co-curricular environment? Why are internships and international experiences so valuable – isn’t getting a 2.1 or a 1st the key? How can I afford to volunteer, and how can I get an internship when my family doesn’t have the connections that others do? Whom do I turn to Someone that I can trust, that actually cares about what I am interested in and how I’m doing.
The peer-mentoring project rejects the coldness that can be found on campus. The ‘distant aloofness’, that one student talked to me about a few years ago, fractures any possibility of connectedness let alone belonging. The essence of our project is simply about caring about others; it is warm, humanising and full of Freire’s pedagogy of hope (Freire, 2021).
Campus relationships matter
Another key part of peer mentoring involves Vincent Tinto’s student integration theory, which has been through a number of various alterations over the years. Tinto’s original model tells us that a student stays in university to the degree to which they felt academically and socially integrated into the life of the university (Braxton et al, 1997, p. 108). There is no magic amount, level or volume of academic or social integration; it is all a function of the individual student and their personal biography. For some students, you find that social integration on campus is of limited importance as the students in question may spend little time on campus outside of class. This means that the academic environment is key in developing some form of connection via staff and student interactions – or ‘academic involvements’ as Tinto (1998, p169) says. Bean and Metzner (1985, p488) noted that for students with fewer interactions with staff and students the social integration element can almost be replaced by an ‘external environment’ set of variables. For example, these could be hours of employment, outside encouragement, or family responsibilities (Davidson et al, 2013).
Nevertheless, as Davidson et al (2013) remind us, ‘campus relationships matter. When students form meaningful relationships with others connected to the institution, they are more likely to persist’. This is a key part of our peer mentoring structures; we want our students to have campus relationships that matter. With these connections and networks of solidarity, students develop an understanding of the game and how to navigate campus networks.
In addition, our students have a personal resource that can provide support should there be moments of uncertainty or difficulty. Many who have taken part in peer mentoring over the years have talked about the immediate reassurance that their mentor has provided in moments of doubt or insecurity. Sometimes, these may seem like small-scale issues, but they can be at the heart of the nature of the relationship a student has with the university. For example, I remember one mentee asking their mentor, “Where am I allowed to study? Where can I sit for long periods of time? I don’t want to take up space in the library if somebody else needs to be there. I need to figure out how I fit into the whole system of the university among people that have been here for many years already or those that just seem to have inside knowledge from home.”
The best thing that has happened to me
Twenty years later, and it’s still raining & breezy and there are still inequities in student experience delivered by structures and practice – classism on campus (Speirs, 2022). When the French writer, Alphones Karr (1862, p278), wrote ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, he was succinctly expressing a level of cynicism about change that still holds strong today. owever, one thing that certainly has changed since that October afternoon all those years ago is the long-term presence of our peer-mentoring project. The oldest and longest running peer support project here in Edinburgh has served some 2000 students over that time in ‘the fellowship and solidarity of community’. Add in the same number of mentors, and you see we’ve had a project with almost 4000 students working together for each other with generous small acts of solidarity.
The security, opportunity and joy that peer-mentoring has provided our students is immense and cannot be ignored as irrelevant or anecdotal. On the contrary, they are part of a pedagogy of hope, which the institution as a whole might want to consider. We’ll be talking about this in more detail at this year’s Learning and Teaching Conference. A mentee told me earlier this year, “Neil, my mentor is the best thing that has happened to me at university. To know that she is actually invested in working with me and cares about how I’m doing…..seriously Neil, the power in that is simply awesome. I want to do that for a first year mentee next year, I want to make sure they can feel as good about themselves as I feel about myself right now. I want to put back into a project that has given so much to me.”
Banning, J. H., & Bryner, C. E. (2001). A framework for organizing the scholarship of campus ecology. Colorado State University Journal of Student Affairs, 10, pp9-20.
Braxton, J. M., Sullivan, A. V., & Johnson, R. M. (1997). Appraising Tinto’s theory of college student departure. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. XII; pp. 231-288). New York, NY: Agathon Press.
Davidson, C., & Wilson, K. (2013). Reassessing Tinto’s concepts of social and academic integration in student retention. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 15(3), 329-346.
Darder, A. (2015). Chapter Two: Paulo Freire and the Continuing Struggle to Decolonize Education. Counterpoints, 500, pp39-54.
Karr, A., (1862) Les Guepes – Sixieme Serie, Paris; Michel Levy Freres
Kram, K.E. and Isabella, L.A. (1985), Mentoring Alternatives: The Role of Peer Relationships in Career Development, The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 110-132.
Freire, P. (2021). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Tinto, V. (1998). Colleges as communities: Taking research on student persistence seriously. The Review of Higher Education, 12(2), 167-177.
Speirs, N. M. (2022). Let’s talk about the hidden curriculum and classism on campus. Higher Education Research Group (HERG) Blog, University of Edinburgh.
Dr Neil Speirs
Neil’s role involves working as a manager, practitioner and researcher in a number of areas concerning widening participation & access and related policy. He has strategic oversight and management of a number of self-generated community projects. These projects along with his teaching and research are centred around a number of areas of interest that span from primary education through secondary, further and higher education. A few of these areas of interest and specialisms are; the transition from primary to secondary education, the academic achievement of working class young males, the sociology of sport, widening participation student transitions, the equity of student experience, social reproduction & critical pedagogy, the working class mature student, the hidden curriculum, peer-related pedagogies and autoethnography.
Gabriele Negro, Widening Participation; Ceilidh Alexander, Mathematics and Music, 4th Year; Eleanor Arrowsmith, Spanish and History, 4th year; Kalim Aziz, Neuroscience, 4th year; Erin Brown, Law, 2nd year; Dawn Lawson, Scottish Literature, 3rd year; Aoife Leong, English Literature, 2nd year; Jenin Ola, Medicine, 1st year; Eve Simpson, Politics, 4th year; Darcey Spenner, Ancient History and Classical Archaeology, 3rd year; Megan Stewart, Linguistics and Social Anthropology, 1st year.