February 24th, 2020: What does it mean to have a Peer Mentor?

2019-2020 Canterbury Christ Church University diary with Student Support, Health and Wellbeing fold-out, and Fearne Cotton's Happy Place Reflection Card which reads "Help Others"

I’ve been asked to write a blog on my experience of having a peer mentor, including the benefits of having a peer mentor and what I’ve gained from having a peer mentor. So, I thought I’d do my best to describe the experience of being a first-year, Level 4 student at CCCU with complex mental-health needs and working on keeping myself safe and supported during this incredible voyage of learning. An honest reflection of the difficulties I’ve faced, but also writing with an awareness of the need to keep boundaries and not lead myself into a position of vulnerability. After all, it is easy to fall into that trap when all you do is bottle it all up inside, that the moment you get to speak, the words come pouring out quicker than the cascade flowing over the edge of the Earth.

I recently wrote a post describing my own awareness of the pressures that becoming a student again may have on my mental health, and that it was a necessity to ensure all the support networks were set-up. When I look back to that time, I realise that it wasn’t until my first week – Welcome Week – where I became familiar with the term “Peer Mentor” at CCCU. I’d been a peer mentor in my teens at secondary school and continued to do all I could to support others over the years, without having a detrimental affect on my own wellbeing. I felt as though I naturally fell into a role of supporting others, and even at my most vulnerable, I was always thinking of everyone else. It took a long time for me to start focusing closer to home, and despite a few blips here and there, I have strived to fight the inner critic.

If I remember rightly, we had the option to be given an application form to request a peer mentor, during our first week, and as I was trying to be as pro-active as possible, figured it’d make sense to fill it out there and then. In fact, browsing through my emails, I can see I applied on 18th September 2019, filling in the ‘Mentor Request Form’, with my student ID, ticking boxes relevant to my motivations, summarising my hobbies, and explaining what I’d like in a mentor: “Someone friendly and approachable, who can understand me, and I can email if I need some support.” I took photos of the form on my phone and sent it straight away to the Peer Mentoring Officer, who I now know is Kellie Schafer, a wonderful Level 6 student, also on the BA (Hons) Counselling, Coaching and Mentoring course I’d found myself on!

Kellie was straight onto finding me a peer mentor, and two days later I was matched with a Level 5 student studying BACCM. (Although I have been assigned a mentor on the same programme, it isn’t always the case with matches. It could be down to what is asked of the student on the application form, and the trained peer mentors who are available for support. Yet, if there are any concerns, I know for sure that if you speak to Kellie, she’ll be more than happy to sort something out for you.)

So, I’ve been matched. It was within 4 minutes of receiving the email from Kellie, I received the email from my elected peer mentor briefly introducing themselves (I can’t guarantee your peer mentor will respond at such speed!)

This has since lead to many, many emails back and forth where I’ve needed to offload my thoughts and feelings towards whatever the subject matter may be. My peer mentor has had the difficult task of sifting through my ridiculously long emails, which I’ve spent far too long writing up, when I perhaps should have been writing or researching for an assignment, but she’s never once complained and in fact told me to stop apologising for the length of them!

The peer to peer mentor relationship:

In my first email, I’d asked how my peer mentor had found their first year and explained how I felt incredibly anxious and worried I would potentially become defensive and/or vulnerable in challenging situations – Yet at the time, the course was only just starting!

At the beginning of the first semester, I had trouble adjusting to everything the university was offering me, and there were a few external issues going on, which ultimately resulted in a lot of emotional breakdowns. We arranged a face-to-face meeting because it’s always good to be able to put a face to the name, and know exactly who you’re talking to – This Peer Mentor thing isn’t a generic-robot spurting out helpful tips and support, it’s real students wanting to offer their time and support for you! Meeting my peer mentor was helpful – We met in Touchdown, and I felt my peer mentor was much more organised than I was, showing me the lovely Rubric grading scale, we get to feast our eyes on every time an assignment needs writing! We discussed the anxieties I’d already mentioned in my emails, and although I still felt out of my depth, I also felt as though I had someone to catch me and say, “It’ll be okay.”

A couple of exchanged emails after the face-to-face meeting, my peer mentor said she loved how organised I was – so with me feeling not organised at all, made me feel I was beginning to find a routine I was comfortable with. She was already praising me on my ability to think about reflective writing, knowing how beneficial it would be for me in the second semester of the first year (and now that we’re at that point, I can tell you there is a lot of reflective thinking!) I think her ability to see the strengths in me helped me to believe in myself, even if only a little bit at a time. 

My peer mentor has been incredibly kind and supportive throughout the email exchange, and most importantly, she’s been professional and empathic. I could really sense her own achievements made throughout her first year, and I have felt assured that I would too get through it!

My university journey so far hasn’t exactly been plain sailing. I didn’t expect it to, and I knew that I’d find myself in some difficulty, as expressed at the beginning of this post. There was a moment in our email exchange where I discussed some issues which caused my peer mentor concern. Fortunately, I was already getting support from the other services available on campus, but my peer mentor showed her duty of care and explained that if she felt I was at harm to myself or others, that in regards to boundaries and confidentiality, she would have to break confidentiality and seek the right advice. Fortunately, I am fully aware and understanding of this “clause” in professional practice and understood that my peer mentor was doing exactly as she should, given the circumstances.

I have felt relieved at the support of having a peer mentor, as it’s allowed me to have a voice as a student to discuss concerns about the programme, query and ask for guidance or any particular techniques to help with writing assignments, or any other aspect of university challenge, with someone who understands and has been through a similar journey. It’s also given me the opportunity to talk to someone when I felt I hadn’t connected with anyone because I can find social communication and interaction a challenge. I can say now, that since starting a new module this semester, I feel more positive with the working relationships in the class, and I challenge myself weekly by attending Chooseday Chill.

Whilst I appreciate that each student will in fact face their own unique university experience, there will be many common thoughts and feelings relating us all to one another. This is where having a peer mentor has such great value. The ability to inspire and encourage a fellow student is something a peer mentor takes pride in. They want you to feel welcomed to CCCU and supported by not just the staff, but by the students too. There is so much the university has to offer, and by requesting a peer mentor, you are gifted with an advocate who can support with resources and guidance throughout your studies, and who knows, they may just inspire you to become a Peer Mentor too where you can be there for the future students at CCCU.

Although I’m on the BACCM programme and have experience of being a peer mentor, in what feels like a lifetime ago (Shout out to the mature students!!), I really welcomed the opportunity to participate in the ‘Peer Mentor’ and ‘Peer Assisted Learning’ training which took place in the ‘Student Development Week’ in January 2020. When I let my peer mentor know, she said “You would be an amazing peer mentor as you can empathise with your mentee which I think is the most important skill in the helping profession and you have really progressed since you have first started academically and emotionally.” Those words, “you have really progressed…” have meant so much to me, and I hope I can carry them with me on my university journey and see the development I am making in my own self-discovery.

I’ve stepped into the unknown,
I’m unsure I know the way –
I’ve started this brand-new chapter,
I’m feeling vulnerable, like prey.

There is no predator searching,
There is no monster in the dark,
But an adventure awaiting,
To allow my mind to spark.

There’s a path I’ll need to follow,
But it won’t be parallel,
To those who start this journey too,
Yet we’re all going to excel.

I know I’m not alone here,
When I say “I feel I don’t fit in” –
Or “I’m not the person I believe I am”,
Because the guides can see within.

The support is there to guide us,
For when we feel we’ve lost the trail.
Catching us when we fall,
Ensuring us – we will not fail!

They gift you with the resources
To find your own way back –
They have belief in you,
And tell you to cut yourself some slack.

It’s easier to be unkind to yourself,
Listening to the inner critic’s voice –
Instead of praising just how far you’ve come,
As you embark on your study of choice.

If you feel you don’t need the support yet – or at all,
Just know that it is there, if ever you need,
Or pass on the information for a struggling friend,
That is all I’ll plead.

For me, I see so much has changed,
It’s been good and it’s been bad.
But what makes it special is –
I’ve held on to the experiences I’ve had.

The journey will be different,
For every individual, it’s true.
Yet it’s okay to need some guidance,
When you’re struggling to get by too.

An advocate will always listen and support,
As you find your way through the forest of books.
They’ll be proud of your achievements,
And remind you of them – when you’re on tenterhooks.

I may continue down a difficult path,
It may still be down the unknown –
But I know that I’m supported,
With all the resources I’ve used and been shown.

I’ve stepped into the unknown,
I’m unsure I know the way –
I’ve started this brand-new chapter,
I’m feeling vulnerable, like prey.

There is no predator searching,
There is no monster in the dark,
But an adventure awaiting,
To allow my mind to spark.

A photo of Erica Terry-Rose

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