Students helping students -- that's the core idea behind the peer support network (PSN), now finishing its first year of operation at UBC Okanagan.
The network of 25 student mentors, plus another five students who serve as coordinators, provides information and services in four key areas -- learning support, supporting students in distress, advocacy support, and supporting student self-development.
"We have weekly meetings where we learn new things, such as how to work with students in distress," said peer support mentor Roxanne Bautista. "As a mentor, you get great experience."
When she started the school year in September, Bautista wanted to get involved in the community as much as she could. "This was a really good opportunity for me to join in and offer help. Helping other people is equivalent to helping myself," she said.
Generally, mentors are second-, third- or fourth-year students who have gained substantial experience in the university setting and know the pressures faced by students. They work in shifts, and in a given week they'll see 24 students or more – students whose grades are slipping, who are having relationship trouble, or who might be having a tough time balancing school work with a job or other demands of student life.
"Balance is very important," noted mentor Carmen Marshall. "For students in the first year especially, it's very important to figure out how to navigate through the year."
Earlier this year, the network took part in hosting a Grade 7 class from Westbank. "It was very rewarding to know that you might have changed someone's mind about one day going to university," said Marshall. "You have to be caring, and a good listener. You have to understand how hard it is to be a student, and you have to believe in education and going to school."
To provide the best advice and support, students have undergone specialized training and developed a wide range of skills – including dealing with confidentiality and diversity issues, handling grade appeals, and even working with people who may be suicidal.
"We've had as many as 30 students attend training sessions," said Lyle Mueller, Coordinator of Aboriginal Programs and Services at UBC Okanagan. "While staff are there to provide training and support, staff don't participate in the interactions between the students. It really is students helping students."
The program is operated by Aboriginal Programs and Services as a service to the entire student community. It's partly modeled on a similar network at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George.
"We also looked at Aboriginal traditional ways of looking at the world," said Mueller. "It has worked out quite nicely and plans are in place for next year."