Peer Educators and Peer Mentors

This article provides information for administrators wishing to start or enhance a peer educator program.

Peer health and wellness educators provide a valuable connection with and relatability to other students through a peer-to-peer discussion or lesson. By virtue of the common ground shared among students, peer educators play a critical part in both promoting and maintaining a healthy campus culture. Student peers cannot take the place of health and wellness professionals; however, as ambassadors for the health/wellness center, they can increase the reach of those professionals and the health/wellness center’s exposure to the campus.

Peer educators can have many different names and roles, and oftentimes, those names and roles overlap or are used interchangeably. In this review, the roles are defined as:

Peer educators are students who engage in health education and promotion outreach programs and activities such as peer-to-peer surveying, health education programs/workshops, staffing info tables, and serving as “first response” for their peers on questions about departmental services or campus resources. This term is the one most commonly used and often is used as an umbrella term.

 

Peer mentors are students who engage their peers in individual and/or group sessions to ease transition into the campus community, serve as a campus resource, and provide a support system. These students would be highly trained in communication skills, responding and referring, warning signs of greater issues, and content, etc. Peer mentors could be utilized at institutions that have limited health education/counseling staff and provide valuable extension of health information into the campus community.

 

While all peer educators engage in some level of advocacy by nature of the work they do with their departmental sponsors, peer advocates are students that actively work to change/update university policies. These students would be expected to attend Student Government meetings, organizational cabinet meetings, possibly faculty/staff senate meetings, etc. to stay informed with campus happenings. They could be expected to propose and pursue policy changes. For example, peer advocates associated with a health center/promotion unit could be expected to advocate for healthier university-wide vending machine options.

Staff Commitment

Traditionally, student peer educators participated solely through the health center’s health promotion and wellness program (HPWP). However, they may now be found throughout various health center programs and throughout the wider campus community. Examples where peer programs may reside include:

  • Health Promotion & Wellness programs, including sexual assault/violence prevention, mental health services, and eating disorders prevention
  • Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC)
  • Campus Life/Student Support Services
  • University Recreation Centers
  • Quality Management Programs
  • Others as needed

When creating a peer educator program, commitment from the staff is foremost as the peer educators must be appropriately trained, mentored, and supervised by a professional. Staff should regularly schedule sessions with peer groups to discuss content, issues encountered, program planning/evaluation, etc., as well as schedule one-on-one meetings with individual peers to discuss their experiences, concerns, needs, and ideas. Supervising and advising peer educators will likely require staff commitment outside of normal working hours. This should be clearly documented in the position description and reviewed with the staff.

Student Commitment

Administrators and staff overseeing peer educators must determine the students’ time commitment for service. A minimum number of hours per semester should be established and include presentations, group meetings, program development, and/or one-on-one meetings with the program’s staff advisor. The minimum number of hours for programs tied to an academic course may differ from a program in which no academic credit is sought, because the academically-tied program’s minimum time commitment will be determined by the number of academic credits to be awarded at the completion of the course. Commitment could be up to an entire academic year depending on the program’s design and content. In order to allow as many students as possible to participate in a peer program, consider establishing a maximum number of allowable semesters for students.

The number of allowable semesters may be based on whether the program is voluntary, peers are paid student workers, or they receive academic credit. All programs should require students to participate for at least one semester. Programs tied to academic credit will specify the requirements as needed to obtain credit. Students must be willing to commit to all training programs and should be prepared to participate in training, which may be scheduled before the start of the academic year.

Recruitment and Retention of Members

Peer programs will not be successful without appropriate recruitment and retention of committed individuals. Recruitment should not be limited to students in the health sciences but should be open to all with a desire to help their peers. Many times, “recruitment” occurs when peers tell their friends about their experiences. The recruitment process should be continual, with information about the programs available on the center’s website. There should be an application and interview period the semester prior to the start of the program. Current peers as well as professional staff should be involved in the process.

Recruitment will also be guided by the program format. If the peers are paid as student workers, recruitment could be as simple as advertising through a campus student job portal or on the health/wellness center website. If the students are volunteers, recruitment will have to be more robust to entice a student to join; flyers, website advertisements, newspaper/social media advertisements, assistance from campus partners, free food, and opportunities to attend national conferences, etc. should all be included as benefits of the program. If students will receive academic credit, enlisting professors to endorse the course will attract students to sign up.

Successful peer programs have little difficulty retaining members and can generally recruit new members easily through word of mouth. Successful programs are innovative, relevant, and have a strong social media presence.

There are various incentives to encourage continued participation. These include:

  • Academic credit when available. This may be possible by collaborating with a school of health sciences, public health, or another relevant program. For example, the University of Maryland offers peer education programs that award academic credit through the UMD School of Public Health.
  • Awards and recognition programs at the end of the academic year to formally recognize outstanding peers.
  • Celebrations/team-building activities such as a potluck party with games, movies, etc. to encourage group bonding.
  • Paid opportunities for peer educators, such as this program at Louisiana State University.
  • Leadership positions within the programs for outstanding and returning peers.
  • Opportunities to attend regional or national meetings.

Basic Training Information

A formal training program such as NASPA’s Certified Peer Educator Program is a great start and built upon with university-specific training such as the one used by the University of Cincinnati. Training should be held prior to the start of the semester. Additional training should be conducted as needed, but the initial training should be comprehensive enough that the student is prepared to go out on campus as soon as possible. Attendance should be mandatory to ensure that all peers receive the same information. Training should be both didactic and interactive.

The peer educators should be trained on any materials or technologies that they will be utilizing in their work. For example, the peer educator should be trained on using the electronic health record if they will be entering information into another student’s clinical record. Also, all peers should receive training on HIPAA, FERPA, student code of conduct, amnesty policies, reporting options, and general policies of the health center. Limitations of confidentiality should be thoroughly understood as there could be one-on-one interactions in which a student may divulge personal information.

General training should be held with all peers at the same time. Upon completion of general training, peers can then be trained for specific programs.

Sample Peer Education Programs

University of Maryland Student Health Center: Student Involvement
University of California, Irvine Counseling Center: Peer Educator Program
University of Georgia Health Center Student Groups
University of Cincinnati Peer Education Network