How Peer Mentors Create Virtual Connections and Community During Covid-19

This is the first post in our Summer 2020 blog series on how “We Create Community” in the time of Covid-19.

 

By George J. Hill, Kingsborough Community College

 

In our winter training session, before the Spring semester began, the Peer Mentors I supervise made a very ambitious plan for what they wanted to do to help new Learning Community students adjust to life at Kingsborough. They had a large number of programs planned, they began designing lessons to teach in the First Year Seminar course, they set up meetings with their mentees, and they began making connections with student support services to help make referrals.

Two days before our first program was scheduled, CUNY moved to distance education. This meant that all the Peer Mentors’ plans, which were based on the idea that they’d be on campus, suddenly went out the window. As I struggled with setting up systems to advise my students remotely and convert my classes to an online form, I’ll confess that in my mind Peer Mentoring took a back seat to other priorities. I simply didn’t know how to keep it going in distance learning, when all the plans the Peer Mentors had made were based on connections on campus. Fortunately, I have a great Peer Mentor staff, and their imagination is much greater than mine.

The Peer Mentors attacked the problem with the same enthusiasm, passion, and creativity that they showed during the winter when they created their original plan for making in-person connections. They designed virtual versions of their planned programs and uploaded them to Blackboard, where students could use the Discussion Board to interact. They recorded videos teaching their students about academic policies. They met with students online through Zoom, communicated through text messages, and regularly checked in on the students. They assisted with online seminars, helped out in virtual classes, and passed along virtual resources. They were magnificent.

As the semester drew to a close, I wanted to celebrate the hard work that the Peer Mentors had done throughout a very challenging time. Typically, at the end of the school year, I host a barbecue on campus for the Peer Mentors as a way to celebrate their accomplishments. One of the things that I usually do at the barbecue is present mentors with awards for outstanding service, and so I decided that while I couldn’t have the traditional barbecue and awards ceremony, I could do a virtual awards show as a surprise for the Peer Mentors.

Since the Peer Mentors all work in cooperation with an advisor in the First Year Seminar class, I asked the advisors to each record a short video message, saying nice things about the Peer Mentor they had worked with, and then send it to me. I recorded myself talking about the two Peer Mentors who were working in my First Year Seminars, so every mentor would have some encouragement from their advisor. I also asked my supervisor, who oversees all the First Year Seminar courses, to say a general thank you to all the Peer Mentors. Everyone recorded their messages, then sent the videos to me via text message.

Traditionally, I give 5 awards at the end of the year, one for each of the most Creative, Dedicated, Resilient, Helpful, and Faithful Peer Mentors. As luck would have it, I ended the year with a staff of 5 Peer Mentors, and so I was able to present an award to each mentor.

Since the start of working from home, I’ve been dressing down more than usual, but when it came time to record the awards ceremony, I made sure to put on a suit and bow tie. I sat down in front of my computer, read all the awards to the camera, and told the Peer Mentors how proud I was of the hard work they put in, especially in the face of a highly unusual challenging semester. Then, using some free video editing software, I spliced together all the videos the advisors had sent, photos of mentor training, screenshots of the work they’d produced this semester, and images of the awards they were receiving. I uploaded the video to YouTube (available here), and sent the link to them in our group text. I emailed them all the link as well, and attached copies of their awards, with the promise that the next time we were together on campus, I would sign them and affix the official seal that I usually put on the awards.

This video started as a way for me to show my gratitude to all the Peer Mentors for the hard work they put in to keep our community connections alive, but I was struck by how much gratitude there was to go around. Every one of the people who recorded something for the video was genuinely thankful for their Peer Mentors too, and it really showed. Moreover, after I sent the video through the group text, every one of the Peer Mentors started texting replies with their own messages of gratitude: to me, to their advisors, to their students, and to one another.

For me, that was a wonderful expression of our community, one which the students worked so hard to keep going, and one we’re all grateful to be a part of.


George J. Hill is an Academic Advisor and the Coordinator of the Learning Community Peer Mentoring Program at Kingsborough Community College.


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