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Duke University Uses Peer Mentorship to Support First-Generation, Low-Income Students

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When Dr. Sachelle Ford became the first director of the DukeLIFE program at Duke University in January 2020, she brought with her the experience of being a first-generation college student.

DukeLIFE (Lower-Income, First-Generation Engagement) is dedicated to supporting the 20% of Duke’s student population that identifies as first-generation, low-income (FGLI). The office offers academic and financial support, faculty and resource connections, and peer mentorship.

Dr. Sachelle Ford, director of the DukeLIFE program at Duke University.Dr. Sachelle Ford, director of the DukeLIFE program at Duke University.“I’m a product of intensive mentorship,” said Ford, adding the mentorship she received was crucial to her enjoyment of her time in college, and she was keen to share that with her students.

Before DukeLIFE, peer-to-peer mentorship had been implemented at Duke before, but the program’s execution did not appeal to many students. Students told Ford they wanted the mentorship experience to feel more organic.

“[DukeLIFE] is a small office—there’s three people—there’s no way we’re going to be able to develop a relationship with each of these students ourselves, we don’t have the bandwidth,” said Ford. Duke’s total undergraduate student population is about 6,700.

“If we train mentors to know about the resources on campus, know about housing, life, and other offices, then they can give that information to their mentees. It allows us to scale help-seeking behaviors and resource knowledge,” said Ford.

To accomplish this goal and meet the student demand for peer mentorship, DukeLIFE connected with Mentor Collective, a company with over 180 institutional partners that helps students build relationships with each other. Ford shared the success of their collaboration at a webinar on Wednesday, where she said that, thanks to peer mentorship, more students are feeling connected with their university, and her office is able to track and support FGLI student needs as they arise.

Vanessa Ford, senior university director at the Mentor Collective, said peer mentorship works.

“It has social, cognitive, behavioral, and motivational outcomes that increase a sense of belonging, satisfaction, health, and help-seeking skills,” said Vanessa Ford. “We know that for students to feel belonging, they need to be integrated—a lack of integration leads to attrition.”

With data Mentor Collective gathered from two years of partnering with higher education institutions, they have found peer mentorship increases a mentee’s sense of belonging by 8% on average. This positive finding increases when disaggregated. Eleven percent of male students and 9% of historically under-served populations said peer mentorship gave them a greater sense of belonging. If mentors and mentees shared more than three conversations throughout the year, 13% of mentees said they felt a greater sense of belonging.

Vanessa Ford, senior university director at the Mentor Collective.Vanessa Ford, senior university director at the Mentor Collective.Although FGLI students are not a monolith, they often share the same struggles or concerns when entering college.

“Our students need extra help navigating different resources and processes on campus,” said Sachelle Ford. “First-generation’s self-reliance is both a positive and a negative. Many have accomplished amazing things for a long time on their own, and they expect to navigate Duke in the same way—but that’s not really possible. Our campus climate, our institutional culture, is created to be collaborative, and FGLI students have to learn that.”

FGLI students can also be more wary of adult help, said Sachelle Ford, made suspicious from past experiences and instances where they were let down. Peer mentors help their mentees learn about campus resources, like the grants available to students who are part of DukeLIFE.

DukeLIFE’s peer mentors are all former mentees and also identify as FGLI. Students are carefully matched with mentors through a detailed survey that asks students what kind of relationship they’re looking for with a mentor, what major they are pursuing and what careers they hope to pursue after graduation.

Mentor Collective, said Vanessa Ford, wants to help institutions meet their goals—their software and support team assesses how peer-to-peer mentorship is helping FGIL students thrive.

After each conversation with their mentee, mentors use Mentor Collective’s software to share what was discussed. Depending on the mentee’s need, alerts can be raised. If a student, for example, wants to switch majors, an alert can get the attention of administration or advisors who can help the mentee navigate that decision.

“There was a lot of skepticism of the program when we got started, are students going to opt in?” said Sachelle Ford. “We’ve found it does work. FGLI students value the one-on-one, value that someone has their back, someone they can relate to, and value being a part of a community. Students asked for it, and they use it.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article cited Duke's undergraduate population at over 16,000, which is the size of Duke's total student population.

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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