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The power of peer support

Transitioning to university life can be challenging but that’s where mentors make a difference.

In the years since Caroline completed her first round of university studies and returned to commence an undergraduate degree in 2019, a revolution had taken place within the higher education sector.

No longer was it necessary to be on campus, line up for lectures, or even give up your day job. Thanks to digital technology, the world of 21st century higher education was now experienced through cloud campuses, online classrooms and digital libraries.

But for Caroline – who has postgraduate degrees underpinning a highly-respected professional career – this brave new world of learning was also foreign terrain.

‘Returning as an undergraduate student and studying via online learning was very new to me and somewhat daunting … this was exacerbated by a recent severe trauma that I’m recovering from and I also have PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] which has made my recovery a slower process,’ she explains.

Listening, supporting, succeeding

Enrolled in a law degree, Caroline’s first step was to make contact with the Faculty of Business and Law’s Student Mentor Program where she was introduced to third-year law student James Royce who became her mentor.

‘I first met with James in December 2018 and we’ve continued to meet on a weekly or fortnightly basis as well as through regular email.  I don’t believe I could have entered my studies with the [necessary] level of preparation for online study if it wasn’t for this mentoring relationship,’ she recalls.

From their first meeting, Caroline says James made her feel at ease and showed genuine interest in her reasons for wanting to become a lawyer in the area of human rights.

‘He was considerate and displayed empathy and sound listening skills. We worked out a plan of key areas and goals to achieve before the first trimester started this year and week by week I became more confident navigating the online cloud system of Deakin and understanding the structure of a law degree and to have the confidence to seek help and ask questions as needed.’

Caroline cannot speak highly enough about Deakin’s student mentor program and the difference it has made to her first-year studies.

‘What has been so rewarding about having James as a mentor is that he helped set me up for success to navigate the online learning system and also met with me during the semester to cheer me along and check in on how I was going.  Over a coffee we would often discuss theoretical and philosophical issues and apply them to current public legal issues or legal principles.  These intellectual discussions were not just enjoyable but are the kind of engagement I have found so helpful in boosting my confidence in study. Also, being able to listen and learn about how a more senior law student has developed their thinking has been great food for thought,’ she says.

Navigating a new life

Dale Hunt is a Peer Support and Transition Officer with the Faculty of Business and Law and says that starting university can be like ‘starting a new life’ that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

‘A mentor is an experienced friend or confidant who is there to provide guidance and support in any number of ways and situations, including academically, which eases new students into university life. Our mentors, who are all volunteers, are experienced students who are chosen for their ability to assist and support new students in their transition to university,’ he explains.

All Deakin’s student mentors received specialised training, complete weekly online progress journals and regularly catch up with the University’s professional staff.

‘We also have Cloud Mentor program that includes two online sessions each week (called a VDIS – Virtual Drop-In Station) from 6pm until 8pm which is run by experienced mentors. Each session is recorded and can be viewed by Cloud B&L students at any time,’ adds Dale.

Choosing to be a mentor

A student mentor for two years, James says he was encouraged to take up the role after being a mentee himself.

‘My mentor got me involved in Deakin’s student societies and events and also gave me some great advice along the way. This motivated me to give back the same experience for new students.’

James has now mentored 15 students and says that for many, finding the balance between work and study is often a key challenge.

‘Another is networking and building social connections. Often, entering university is an upscale from a student’s usual environment and that can be really daunting.’

Students supporting students

One of James’ first mentees was a 17 year-old international student who had no family in Australia, no permanent accommodation, no work, no transport and already three weeks behind in his course.

‘In the first few weeks I spent around three to four hours a week with him showing him how to use Deakin’s online resources, where to get help from the language and learning advisers, where to buy textbooks and emailing his unit chairs for extensions on assignments and additional consultations,’ he says.

James then helped him prepare an employment resume and search for accommodation and by Trimester 3, when he was due for a return visit to India to see his family, the student had made the decision not go home.

‘By then he’d organised work and accommodation so instead, his family were coming to visit him. We still keep in regular contact and he’s now well adjusted, loving life in Australia and achieving strong results in his studies,’ James says.

He suggests that one of the strengths of “students supporting students” is that mentees often feel more comfortable asking what they think might be ‘awkward or silly’ questions.

‘We can streamline a mentee’s ability to adapt by outlining some of the common challenges and how we deal with them. Also, we’re able provide insight into course and career opportunities that can be capitalised on really early in the degree while the rest of the cohort is still adjusting,’ he adds.

Reciprocal rewards

But there are also rewards for the mentor and for James, one is the satisfaction of genuinely being able to help a new student.

‘I feel it also affirms my knowledge and some of the decisions that I’ve made in my studies; it challenges me to not become complacent.

James believes Deakin’s student mentor program provides huge benefits for any new student – not only those who are facing challenges.

‘Whether a student is confident or apprehensive about adapting to university, a mentor is able to cater their advice accordingly and provide immense value.  Joining the program is completely free and voluntary and there are no expectations on mentees. We are there simply to provide advice and support.’

Deakin Law students can find or become a mentor at our Student Mentor Program page

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