Developing a Virtual Peer Mentor Program | Eli Williams & Jenna Heath

written by: Eli Williams & Jenna Heath

Step 1: Innovative Ideas

Step 2: Program Planning, Discussion with Peers/Colleagues, Professional Development Seminars

Step 3: Leadership (LEAD) Competency & Student Learning & Development


In higher education, formalized peer mentoring programs are increasingly regarded as an effective strategy to improve undergraduate student retention and success (Jacobi, 1991; Collier, 2015). Research suggests that peer mentoring—that is, the developmental relationship between an experienced college student and a peer less familiar with their institution—can positively impact a number of variables associated with the success of mentored students (mentees). Peer mentoring can increase mentee engagement in learning (Jacobi, 1991), increase mentees’ feelings of connection to their campus community (Colvin & Ashman, 2010), and help mentees identify and use campus resources (Beatrice & Shively, 2007; Torres Campos, 2009). Additionally, Collier (2015) suggested that peer mentoring can be “particularly effective at promoting college success for students of color and other underrepresented student groups” (p. 12) by providing students with a role model and peer support in managing the adjustment issues inherent to their transition to the college student role.

Peer mentoring also provides opportunities for undergraduate student mentors to experience developmental gains in their employment. While Peer Mentors may have little to no expectation for their own learning outcomes (Harmon, 2006), formalized peer mentoring can provide a number of perceived benefits including the opportunity to support other students, developing meaningful friendships and connections, and the ability to reapply concepts in their own lives to help them become better students themselves (Colvin & Ashman, 2010).

For a number of reasons, Peer Mentor program development may be an especially effective student support intervention in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. First, amidst budget cuts and hiring freezes across the landscape of higher education, Peer Mentors are a cost-efficient outlet for providing support to new students (Collier, 2015). Additionally, by building personal relationships with their mentees, and serving as an accessible—and potentially less intimidating—connection to campus communities, Peer Mentors help validate mentees’ experiences and feelings, and identify and address adjustment issues and personal concerns. Third, in many cases the pandemic has necessitated a shift in university orientation and transition programming from in-person to virtual delivery. The limited personal contact and individual attention of such programming models may disproportionately affect first-generation students, who sometimes struggle to navigate campus resources and overcome imposter syndrome (Edwards, 2019). Peer mentoring addresses this impact by pairing new students with peers who are trained to provide resource referral, emotional validation, and assistance fulfilling the expectations of the college student role.

Finally, developing Peer Mentor programs entails investing in student employment opportunities and valuable leadership experiences for Peer Mentors. Many students—including those in need of employment to pay for their education—lost jobs due to this global crisis. Compensating Peer Mentors with hourly wages, while limited by a reduced university budget, helps alleviate their financial burden and provides an opportunity to enhance mentors’ career readiness through student employment experience and ongoing professional development training opportunities.

Given the great breadth of developmental gains possible for both Peer Mentors and their new-student mentees, it comes as no surprise that colleges and universities are increasingly investing in the development of formalized peer mentoring programs. Further developing Peer Mentor programs—from recruitment and hiring, to training, to supervision and support—has been immensely challenging during remote instruction and the uncertain work-life environment imposed by a global pandemic.

We, the authors, have employed innovative strategies to handle these challenges in our Peer Mentor program, including rethinking training delivery, employing new supervision techniques, and challenging our perceptions of programmatic best practices. We recognize that institutional support from high-level administrators—support which other programs and practitioners may not have—played a large role in our ability to adapt the Peer Mentor program to virtual delivery. Still, we believe these strategies and experiences hold great exploratory value for other scholar-practitioners looking to enhance student learning, development, and success in our challenging remote environments.

COLA Peer Mentor Program

Before we discuss adaptation strategies, it is important to recognize that our Peer Mentor program was developed not in response to COVID-19, but rather piloted shortly before we understood the impact the pandemic would have on higher education and the world. In fall 2019—in alignment with university goals to enhance student retention and graduation rates—the Provost Office at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) designated peer mentoring as a campus-wide initiative. The objective of this decision was to create autonomous, college-specific peer mentoring programs supported by centralized hiring, training, and assessment practices. This entailed allocating funding to pay Peer Mentors in each of UNLV’s 12 undergraduate-serving colleges; hiring a Peer Mentoring Coordinator to implement centralized protocols; and identifying an existing staff member in each college to create and operate a program that supports its first-time, first-year cohort.

In one of those colleges, UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts (COLA), the Director of Student and Community Engagement serves as the supervisor of this program. In conceiving the COLA Peer Mentor Program, she leveraged the strength of an existing first-year experience program in the college and fully embedded peer mentoring into the COLA First Year Seminar. This includes graded assignments that constitute either 10% or 25% of a student’s First Year Seminar course grade (decided individually by course instructors). Students enrolled in the First Year Seminar engage in at least three one-on-one meetings and at least one workshop or event with an assigned Peer Mentor throughout the semester. In meetings, Peer Mentors help their mentees construct personally meaningful goals, identify helpful campus resources and involvement opportunities, and provide emotional support and validation. At the end of the semester, mentored students write a reflection paper about their experience with the mentor relationship.

This program model was piloted successfully in the fall 2019 semester: Peer Mentors reported satisfaction with their experiences and leadership development, and first-year mentees self-reported learning that aligned with designated program learning outcomes. Given its short development timeline, the program was considered successful and scalable. However, when UNLV moved abruptly to remote instruction in the middle of the spring semester and during the Peer Mentor recruitment cycle, our young program encountered new challenges that required creative solutions.

Online Training and Empathy

Empathy and listening are core competencies of the Peer Mentor role. Validating and reflecting feelings, active listening, and drawing out stories help mentors build rapport with their new student mentees, validate their experiences, and learn how to empower those mentees to problem-solve. As such, one significant challenge presented by our institutional shift to remote instruction was conducting adequate training for Peer Mentors to understand and practice empathy skills.

After assessing options, I (Eli, the Peer Mentoring Coordinator) decided to conduct Peer Mentor training online using the Canvas platform with which students are familiar from their academic coursework. A delayed hiring cycle and scheduling challenges rendered synchronous training infeasible for UNLV’s roughly 100 Peer Mentors, which meant that all Peer Mentor training needed to happen asynchronously online. This entailed constructing and recording presentations, designing activities, and prompting reflections to help newly-hired Peer Mentors learn key concepts and skills including Peer Mentor role responsibilities, FERPA and confidentiality protocol, campus resources and effective referrals, and—crucially—empathic listening and communication.

To help Peer Mentors achieve learning outcomes related to empathy skill development, I worked to find creative ways to teach microskills online. Microskills, in short, are communication skills that help show caring and build rapport. Based on a larger microskill hierarchy used in counseling and psychotherapy (Ivey & Ivey, 2003), the foundational microskills of attending and listening can help Peer Mentors conduct effective meetings with their mentees.

There is a long history of employing microskills in higher education and student affairs work, including to strengthen rapport in academic advising relationships (Barnett et al., 2006). This is due to their nature as definable, observable, and teachable skills. Infusing microskill development into Peer Mentor training helps students challenge implicit perceptions that empathy is an inherent personality trait. It also fosters a growth mindset regarding Peer Mentors’ own listening and empathy skills.

In previous roles and training cycles, I have effectively employed interactive, peer-focused pedagogies and learning activities to help students learn microskills in-person. Think-pair-shares, role plays, group discussions, and icebreakers are effective and time-tested: when it comes to student training, they work. However, the challenge of adapting this training material to asynchronous, online modules necessitated creativity. To make the material digestible and interactive without a captive in-person audience or the luxury of time, I narrated presentations about the microskills hierarchy, including examples from the peer mentoring relationship. I complemented presentations with training activities that mimicked peer interaction and role play. Peer Mentors transformed prompted questions from closed to open; they practiced paraphrasing a mentee stream-of-consciousness paragraph; and they developed a “Rapport-Building Plan” they would discuss with their supervisors and fellow mentors before putting in action with their mentees during the semester.

These activities helped students get their hands on the material and provided rich reflections for training assessment and supervisor follow-up meetings. Finally, I leveraged existing resources like Kognito’s “At-Risk for Students” student of concern simulation (to which UNLV already had contracted access), and free online videos—including the animated YouTube video “Brené Brown on Empathy” and TED Talks—to help students understand the skills in different contexts. As a result, each of the 112 Peer Mentors who engaged with online training self-reported feeling more confident in their abilities and being prepared to both build mentee rapport and practice empathy skills.

Navigating Challenges to Online Mentoring

While the development of Peer Mentors’ empathy skills is essential, this approach is not without challenges. Fundamental to effective mentoring spaces is the establishment of rapport and a comfortable environment for vulnerability and self-disclosure. We have found that peer mentoring is most effective when mentees can authentically and openly reflect their experiences and their feelings. But program structure and online instruction have complicated Peer Mentors’ ability to create a warm environment with mentees.

Because the COLA program is integrated into the First Year Seminar course, mentees do not elect to participate in the program. As can be expected with any mandatory course component, many students therefore view the mentoring relationship as a “box to be checked.” That is, mentees participate transactionally in the minimum number of mentor meetings needed to earn points, and they often do not perceive or buy into the value of the mentoring relationship at its origin. While survey data from previous mentee cohorts indicates that all students—regardless of initial investment—report positive experiences and developmental gains from their mentor interactions, the challenge becomes shifting student perception away from transaction, and toward growth and personal development.

Additionally, strictly online modes of mentoring have challenged Peer Mentors’ confidence in the efficacy of their mentoring efforts. Distractions, delays, and issues with computer audio make it difficult for Peer Mentors to know if their mentees are engaged and focused on video conferencing meetings. Moreover, observation of mentee non-verbal cues, body language, and vocal qualities during mentor meetings is limited to what is perceivable via webcam.

Although students did discuss and learn empathy skills during online training, improving their ability and self-efficacy to build empathetic mentor relationships required us to utilize additional resources that we never had to access before. For example, we incorporated selected excerpts and activities from Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead (2018) into Peer Mentor staff meeting discussion. In the book, Brown outlines important empathy lessons from her research in social work, including what she calls empathy misses. This section is dedicated to the idea that there are barriers to empathy, or ways we think we are empathetically supporting someone, but we may be missing the mark. During a team meeting with mentors we discussed this section, described the empathetic misses and had mentors share how they have observed empathy misses happen within their own cohort of mentees.  Feedback from mentors included that this type of mid-semester teaching was valuable to them and they felt it would assist them in the immediate future.

Adapting burgeoning programs to new contexts requires the creativity to innovate beyond old ways of doing. In our experience, this has never been more true than meeting the demands of remote student learning and development imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help mentors perceive themselves as partners in the process of innovation, another tool we have utilized is mentors sharing personal stories of mentee engagement during team meetings. Although we have always encouraged Peer Mentors to share from their own experiences, we have now adopted the practice of naming certain Peer Mentors as “experts” of areas in which they excel.

For example one Peer Mentor was doing an outstanding job of meticulously tracking her mentee engagements and staying on top of which students were going through certain experiences. She shared with the team how she used Google Sheets as an online tracking tool and provided a model for others. Another Peer Mentor debriefed their experiences working with mentees who had expressed personal trauma resulting from COVID-19. They discussed with the mentor staff how they managed to work with their supervisor and campus experts to ensure the students were getting the help and resources they needed. Yet another Peer Mentor built strong relationships with male mentees who at first were unwilling to open up. This mentor shared strategies and tips for successfully working with this population of students to create empathetic relationships.

These “expert” sharing moments have been critical in building a cohort-based team environment online. Doing so allows them to build relationships with each other, feel greater confidence in their own expertise and ability, and rely on their peers’ advice to build empathetic relationships with their mentees. And as scholar-practitioners, positioning Peer Mentors as experts has reified to the authors how valuable student voice can be in co-constructing programs and innovative solutions. While we have certainly leaned on our advanced education, transferable professional experience, and community of colleagues in adapting to the challenges of the pandemic, it is also important not to dismiss the expertise of our student leaders and their lived experience.


The global COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our ways of being, working, interacting, but also—importantly—our ways of knowing as educators and leaders. Best practices and traditional pedagogies, while research-guided and helpful in shaping our work, need to be reconsidered and adapted to meet the challenges of the moment. In leading the development of the COLA Peer Mentor program, we leaned into humility and curiosity, and recognized the limitations of our expertise working in higher education during COVID-19. We chose to make use of outside or unconventional resources, such as: literature from counseling and social work (microskills), free online training materials, innovative supervision strategies and activities, and most importantly, the lived experiences and expertise of our students. As educators, this will be one of the central challenges of our work in the pandemic: to think creatively beyond the “best practices” we know, love, and rely on in service of the health of our students, our programs, and our growth.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What common or conventional “best practices” in your work have not translated well to a COVID-19 or remote work environment? What resources exist on your campus (or in your communities) that you could better integrate into your work?
  2. How do you consider and legitimize students’ experiences as best practice? How do you uplift student voices as expert voices?
  3. In the absence of in-person gatherings, how do we reconceive student training and development for online delivery, and as ongoing processes?

Eli Williams Bio:

Eli Williams is the Peer Mentoring Coordinator in the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). A native of California’s Central Coast and an alumnus of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, he received a B.A. in English (emphasis in Poetry-Writing) in 2014 and an M.A. in Counseling and Guidance in Higher Education and Student Affairs in 2017. Eli has a background in student leadership development; he previously coordinated programs and designed and taught undergraduate leadership development courses at UNLV.

Jenna Heath Bio:

Jenna Heath, M.Ed. is the Director of Student & Community Engagement for the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). She received her M.Ed. from UNLV in December 2016 and her Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Political Science from San Diego State University (SDSU) in 2013. After graduating she worked in the Office of the President at SDSU then moved to Las Vegas to pursue her Masters. Jenna has served as an Admission Counselor, Assistant Director of Career & Professional Development and has taught multiple courses across UNLV. Her research interests include professional and career development in curriculum at the university level.

Jenna has served in many volunteer roles for Greek lettered organizations, she has extensive experience in public speaking nationally, and enjoys perfecting the art of networking and connecting with others.


Beatrice, J., & Shively, P. (2007). Peer mentors target unique populations; increase use of campus resources. E-Source for College Transitions, 4(5), 1-4.

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. Random House.

Collier, P. J. (2015). Developing effective student peer mentoring programs: A practitioner’s guide to program design, delivery, evaluation, and training. Stylus Publishing.

Colvin, J. W., & Ashman, M. (2010). Roles, risks, and benefits of peer mentoring: Relationships in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 18(2), 121-134.

Edwards, C. W. (2019). Overcoming imposter syndrome and stereotype threat: reconceptualizing the definition of a scholar. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, 18(1).

Harmon, B. V. (2006). A qualitative study of the learning processes and outcomes associated with students who serve as peer mentors. Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition, 18(2), 53-82.

Ivey, A. E., & Ivey, M. B. (2003). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (5th Ed.). Brooks/Cole.

Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 505–532.

Torres Campos, C. M., Phinney, J.S., Perez-Brena, N., Kim, C., Ornelas, B., Nemanim, L., Padilla Kallemyn, D. M., Mihecoby, A., & Ramirez, C. (2009). A mentor-based targeted intervention for high-risk Latino college freshman. A pilot study. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 8(2), 158-178.

Additional Online Training Resources

“10 ways to have a better conversation” TED Talk by Celeste Headlee:

“Brené Brown on Empathy” video:

“Fixed vs. Growth Mindset” video:

Kognito At-Risk for College Students: