Virtual interactions limit the benefits WC’s peer mentor program provides first-year students

By Emma Reilly

Elm Staff Writer

Washington College’s Peer Mentor program connects groups of incoming freshmen with a peer mentor to help guide them through the transition into the College. When WC went entirely virtual for the Fall 2020 semester, the program faced prominent setbacks.

“[Freshmen] are trying to make this transition from high school to college but they’re not even leaving their house,” junior Peer Mentor Leader Erin Jesionowski said. 

According to the program’s website, peer mentor groups are typically made up of eight to 15 students enrolled in the same first-year seminar. Peer mentors reach out to their mentees over the summer, guide them through orientation programming, and remain a resource for their mentees for the entirety of their first semester, according to junior Peer Mentor Isabelle Anderson. 

According to Anderson, the major role of WC’s peer mentors is to assist with orientation. This typically includes activities associated with the College’s Orientation Explore program. Mentees would, in a “normal” semester, take part in field trips and excursions specialized to their interests, according to WC’s website.

The virtual orientation programming provided by the College for the fall 2020 semester lacked the specialization and interaction provided by Orientation Explore.

This challenged peer mentors’ ability to engage their mentees and establish meaningful connections with their group.

“For this past year [orientation] was kind of just having Zoom meetings and hoping that people would show up to them,” Anderson said. “There wasn’t much reinforcement that we could do, which we’re usually able to do in person.”

Constant on-screen time left students with little interest in orientation programming, which in turn affected peer mentors’ morale. 

“We worked our butts off trying to make it as immersive and as captivating as it could be, but in the end, you get Zoom fatigue. It was tiring on our part as well as on the first-years’ part,” Jesionowski said.

Lack of interest and engagement continued to affect the program throughout the fall semester.

“I advised the peer mentors to begin with individual Zoom meetings … with their mentees and that was really hard to get the first-years to commit to,” Jesionowski said.

The benefits of the program usually come in the form of providing students with their “first built-in friend,” Anderson said. Over Zoom, peer mentors were unable to make those same connections.

“I’ve tried my best to get to know everyone, but of course there’s a screen between us so there’s only so much we can do,” Anderson said.

This disconnect impacted the overall effectiveness of the Peer Mentor program by reducing mentors’ abilities to establish personal bonds with their mentees and with one another.

The College was limited to training peer mentors virtually last semester. According to Anderson, the lack of in-person team bonding impacted how the program was run structurally.

“We kind of lean on each other when things get difficult, and I think that the peer mentors who just became peer mentors last year and have only experienced it virtually don’t really have that sense of a team,” Anderson said.

The Peer Mentor program will benefit from a return to in-person campus life.

 “I definitely was able to appreciate the in-person interaction with [my mentees] a lot more this semester,” Jesionowski said. She has only been able to briefly interact with a few of her mentees who chose to move to campus.

Interpersonal connections are what make the program so effective, and in-person orientation will allow these connections to thrive once again. 

“I think we’re going to get to do some cool stuff after the last year and a half we’ve been through,” Jesionowski said.

Peer mentors will be able to more effectively guide both new class of 2025 mentees and former mentees through the complexities of college life once the barrier of virtual life has been removed.

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