The impact of a technology-enhanced peer mentor referral system on college freshmen

Werntz, A., Jasman, M., Simeon, K., Gunasekaran, H., Yowell, C., & Rhodes, J. E. (2023). Implementation of a technology-enhanced peer mentor referral system for first-year university students. Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although a college degree offers many benefits, evidence indicates that 30% of students drop out before their second year, especially for non-White, first-generation, and low-income college students.
  • Students may be unsure how to access services, which can, in turn, make them feel stressed and slow them down from seeking help. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these issues and emphasized the need for better approaches to support them.
  • Mentoring and other social support services can help alleviate stress and better grades. Additionally, student engagement with campus resources is linked to campus connectedness and positive academic outcomes.
  • This study assessed MentorHub NU, a college customization of the youth-focused platform, MentorHub. MentorHub NU was customized for first-year college students, and aimed to connect students to campus resources,  A universal version of this college product, MentorPRO, is now available and currently being tested with additional college students. It was customized to track college students’ weekly challenges and connect them with peer mentors who are trained to provide students with support and campus referrals. The platform prompts users to set goals and to rate the severity of college-related challenges they may be facing.
  • 47% of the first-year students participated in the program and used MentorHub NU to talk with their mentors and disclose their well-being.
  • There were no notable differences between the number of messages for peer mentors and check-in usage based on students’ generational or unrepresented minority status.
  • Findings suggest that first-generation students and students from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to get referred than their peers.
  • Students’ main source of stress shifted from career concerns to academic habits over the course of the academic semester.
  • Mentors did not use the referrals feature frequently. This indicates that mentees were not just interacting with their mentors to access campus resources.
  • Program participation rates varied by student background. Students who were female, White, multiracial, slightly older, or international students were more likely to participate than the entire first-year class.
  • The college platform (MentorHub NU) helped alleviate the burden on students & academic advising services and provided live-time awareness to staff members about the obstacles college students faced throughout the school year.
  • Since COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, mentors are encouraged to interact with their mentees via the app and in person.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract) 

COVID-19 forced college administrators to reassess how they provide students with the most effective methods of support. This project examined the first year of a novel digital peer mentoring program with the goal of connecting diverse students to campus resources they needed to navigate the transition to and through their first year of college. MentorHub NU, a referral and supportive accountability mobile application, was implemented with first-year undergraduates at a large, private university in the northeastern region of the USA. MentorHub tracked students’ current challenges and connected them with trained peer mentors who provided students with support and referrals to campus resources (e.g., mental health, financial, academic). Analyses were not hypothesis-driven, but instead were exploratory and intended for improving the platform. In the first year of the program (August 2021 to June 2022), 47% (N = 3141) students logged onto the platform at least once. Patterns of self-reported challenges revealed that career concerns were the most challenging at the beginning of the fall semester, and that academic habits were most challenging over the course of the year. Referrals (N = 756) were made by mentors, 13% of which were for health and well-being. First-generation and underrepresented minority students showed distinct patterns in referrals. Findings revealed distinct patterns in self-reported challenges across the academic year. Students’ use of MentorHub NU and responses to in-app questions allowed for a real-time understanding of student challenges and patterns of engagement with peer mentors. Implications for a stepped-care approach to addressing student challenges are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

At the end of the first year of a new, technology-enhanced peer mentoring program at a private university, results suggest that the program was both feasible (47% of the first-year class opted into the program) and acceptable (students used the MentorHub application to report their wellbeing across six domains and communicate with their peer mentor). There were no significant differences in Check-In use or number of messages to peer mentors based on students’ generational or underrepresented minority status. However, results suggested that first-generation students were more likely to receive a referral than their continuing-generation peers, and students from an underrepresented background were more likely than their peers to receive a referral. Over the year, clear patterns of students’ challenges emerged: career was the primary stressor at the beginning of the academic year, but this shifted to academic habits as the semester progressed.

Relevant Findings

Overall, the first year of this technology-enhanced peer mentoring program was successful. First-year undergraduates had the opportunity to use a novel mobile app, MentorHub NU, to connect with paid older peer mentors at their university. Peer mentors were trained to provide specialized support based on presenting challenges of their students. A large proportion of students reported their current challenges via MentorHub and their peer mentors responded typically within 24 h to follow up with support and referrals. Although the original goal of the program was for peer mentors to provide formal referrals through MentorHub NU, we found that many students did not use the referral function, suggesting that students were engaging with their peer mentors for more than just connections to campus resources. Although technology not only facilitated communication between students and their peer mentors, it also allowed the university to monitor current challenges for students across the year. Students reported their current challenges (at varying frequencies by student) over time; in future iterations of the program, the university can make just-in-time decisions about relevant supports for students based on live data.

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