Peer Advising: Benefits and Challenges

by Alina Fein and Wendy Fischman

In many ways, the African adage “it takes a village to raise a child” also applies to college-age students. In speaking with graduating students from many different institutions about their college experience, one would be hard-pressed to find a student who managed to get through the undergraduate years without any help. Given the academic focus and structure of college, we might habitually associate advising with professor-student mentorship. However, in our large national study of higher education, we have discerned an important misalignment: in general, faculty members lament that students don’t come to office hours, while at the same time, students don’t feel that they get the help they need (see recent blog post here). Certainly, faculty and staff influence students, but according to the participants in our study, this influence occurs mostly in the academic realm.

When asked directly, the majority of students identify “peers” as the most influential group on their college experience. This appears to be the case because students most often seek help for personal problems—for example, juggling academic work with jobs outside of school and extra-curricular activities in school, smoothing out dynamics with roommates or friends, or satisfying personal, peer, or familial expectations. Thus, one obvious strategy for providing support is to make greater use of peers.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of peer advisor programs on campuses. Conceptually, peer advisors, who have training and college experience, are meant to combine the comfort and familiarity of fellow students with the knowledge and wisdom typically associated with a professor or older mentor figure—an ideal combination. Though students and others on-campus speak mostly in positive terms about peer advising programs, we encounter yet another misalignment: while schools invest significant resources in setting up such programs, students more frequently rely on their own pre-established relationships, rather than an “assigned” advisor. Peer advising, like any type of formal advising, proves to be complicated.

Our study has identified four main challenges to peer advising:

1) Lack of adequate training: With the increase of mental health issues on campus, some campuses have developed programs and approaches for student ambassadors and peer counselors— individuals who help to create awareness for students about mental health issues as well as resources available on campus. However, these peer advisors are not necessarily trained to deal with specific problems that students may share (ranging from cheating on assignments to sexual assault)—and as a consequence, the ambassador and the confiding student find themselves in uncomfortable positions. One student describes his desire to just be a helpful “peer,” and not a formal “peer advisor” for this very reason: “I don’t think I would want to be [a peer advisor] just because I don’t know how to deal with those issues. I guess I would be trained to. But I… I’d rather someone come to me and talk to me about it instead of feeling like they have to talk to me because I’m a peer advisor.” In addition, though peer advisors go through training sessions, they may not have enough experience or information to know exactly when to refer a student to a professional, and whom a student should see. In a nutshell, undergraduates do not have the graduate training or clinical experience sufficient to help someone in crisis.

2) Confidentiality: In most jurisdictions, students must now report incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment to school administrators. Because of this requirement, these peer advisors no longer have the authority to say that they are a “confidential” resource for students. School administrators hope that peer counselors will still facilitate conversation, but students are less likely to share information that makes them vulnerable, especially if they know that they (or the incidents) will be reported. One student notes the fragility of the student hotline: “[Now] students in need can’t call [other students] in the middle of the night… [which] has caused like a huge uproar because [these peer counselors] are such a great resource for people who don’t feel comfortable going to actual therapy or can’t get an appointment…” For those in an emergency situation, confidentiality may no longer be a possibility.

3) Competing responsibilities: Once students develop a connection with a peer advisor, they may come to rely on this specific person. But peer advisors are college students themselves. Their schedules can be overloaded with coursework, paid jobs on or off campus, as well as unanticipated personal needs. One student laments: “My… counselor… she was helpful at the beginning. But then I like needed a lot more help, and she kind of dropped the ball…” Unintentionally, some colleges may be placing an additional burden on student advisors, a situation that can negatively affect those who come to depend on them.

4) False sense of authority: Students who need help may find themselves caught between two available and apparently knowledgeable peers. Both may intend to help—but they may approach a problem differently. One student describes an uncomfortable situation: his residential advisor and dorm president disagreed about how to bring people together, specifically in structuring activities in the dorm. Though this student acknowledges that while both advisors “want what’s best,” he felt “caught between them.” Instead of providing opportunities for students to bond, this student says, “it’s all gotten very political.” With peers, sometimes, it is not clear who is really in charge.

These four scenarios that we’ve outlined can create difficult situations. Schools want to rely on peers in order to provide some help to the overburdened mental health centers. But responsible administrators cannot afford the liability that arises when students, who are not properly trained, mishandle a delicate, or even a dangerous situation. 

To be sure, peer advisors have the potential to be positive influencers for college students. But in order for this cohort to reach its full potential, schools need to attend to the aforementioned challenges. For example, to overcome training challenges, schools could recruit graduate students (from their own or nearby campuses), who are roughly the same age, but have had more specific training. These graduate students could serve as “counselors in training.” It may be possible to pair graduate students (or even undergraduates) with clinicians, on or off campus, who would be available for referrals, particularly in perilous situations. Schools could also consider offering course credit for being a peer counselor—a policy that might make the responsibilities more manageable for those with limited time. In addition, both peer counselors and students could complete anonymous evaluations about their peer advising experiences. Such reports would include feedback from both parties about the quality of the experience, and particular challenges that arose. Importantly, these strategies would require individuals on and off campus to work together—across departments and divisions—to improve and reimagine peer counseling programs.

All institutions of higher learning strive to inculcate critical thinking in their matriculating students. Administrators and others at these institutions also need to exhibit such thoughtfulness when they institute programs that can harbor high reward, but also pose high risk.

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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