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George Mason University

HNRS 261 Peer Mentorship in Honors: Redefining Mentorship for Honors College Students

March 14, 2019

Peer Research Mentors have played a central support role in Honors 110: Principles of Research and Inquiry courses for years. Effective Fall 2019, the Peer Research Mentor role will merge with other mentorship opportunities, forming a new “Peer Mentor” experience. Students who become Peer Mentors will guide Honors College first-year students through Honors 110 and play a more supportive role in the social life of the new students.

Dr. John Woolsey, who coordinates the Peer Mentorship in Honors experience

The Peer Mentorship experience offers “an opportunity for the people who are serving as Peer Mentors to really grow, and that’s why it was really important to rethink the curriculum from [their] angle,” said Honors College Research Curriculum Coordinator Dr. John Woolsey, who leads the group.

The next generation of Peer Mentors will enroll in a section of Honors 261: Community Connection Practicum, one of the new civic engagement courses. These courses fulfill the civic engagement requirement for students coming in Fall 2019 or who update their catalog year. For students with prior catalog years, the courses will substitute for Honors 230. In the “Peer Mentorship in Honors” Community Connection Practicum, they will receive training and hands-on experience facilitating community engagement in the Honors College.

By combining the Peer Research Mentors with other roles, the “Peer Mentorship in Honors” program will put more emphasis on the social connections between mentor and mentee. As a past Peer Research Mentor, Honors College sophomore Gemma Carretta appreciates that the program is increasing its emphasis on the personal experiences of students. Carretta, a Global Affairs major, says these changes are important because closer connections increase social cohesion within the Honors College and build the trust students need to reach out for help.

Alongside sophomore Bioengineering major Julianna Nicolaus, Carretta served on the Curriculum Development Team (CDT) the spring of her freshman year. Both wanted to continue their impactful leadership roles by serving as mentors.

Gemma Carretta talks to some prospective students

Gemma Carretta, a long-time Peer Research Mentor, helping a prospective student family at a recent admissions event

The Curriculum Development Team is comprised of a group of students who assess, create, and improve lessons, workshops, and activities for the Honors College. Tasked with redesigning the Peer Mentor experience, the CDT is shaping what the future Honors 261 practicum will entail.

Carretta and Nicolaus noted that one way the mentorship experience will improve is by fostering dialogue between mentors and their leaders about what they are experiencing as mentors.

Like Carretta and Nicolaus, Sara Huzar has served as a Peer Research Mentor and on the Curriculum Development Team. She credits Dr. Woolsey for how much freedom he gives these students in creating innovative ideas to improve the courses. The hands-on problem-solving involved with mentorship and with work on the Curriculum Development Team reflect the goals for the Honors College’s Community Connection Practicums: by navigating different perspectives within the group, student participants learn key problem-solving and leadership skills that are applicable to many forms of civic engagement. 

Portrait of Sara Huzar

Sara Huzar, Lead Mentor

“I think it was good to have all those different opinions because it made the agreement that [we] came to much more solid and rich,” said Huzar.

Nicolaus reflects positively on her growth as a leader in the PRM program. Huzar emphasizes that it was intrinsically rewarding to see her students learn and grow through their own breakthroughs in research, but her reflection on this reward reveals that she personally has developed an important leadership trait through this program. 

In recognition of her key role in the program, Huzar was among the first cohort of Lead Research Mentors in Fall 2018. Lead Research Mentors are responsible for coordinating teams of Peer Research Mentors and helping the program meet its goals. In the future, Peer Mentors will have the opportunity to apply to join a special section of Honors 361: Multidisciplinary Practicum for Lead Mentors after they have completed Honors 261.

The current Lead Mentors are choosing the next group of mentors. Lead Mentors collaborated with Dr. Woolsey and other Honors College faculty to host a challenge for potential mentors. Students brainstormed in small groups to come up with an innovative way to tackle issues faced by first-year Honors College students. Huzar developed the idea for this activity, hoping to create a scaled-down version of what the mentors can expect if they enter the role.

Dr. Woolsey has one main piece of advice for the new Peer Mentors: “Be present.” Like Nicolaus and Carretta, Dr. Woolsey believes it is important that mentors connect with all students and respect the many ways students can experience their first year. It is particularly important that the mentors respect that other students may have very different disciplinary interests, Honors 110 experiences, or personalities than them.

Every student is going to need something different from you. […] Every year is going to be different [...] Be adaptable. Be flexible. It’ll all work out.

Sara Huzar, Lead Mentor

Both Nicolaus and Carretta emphasized that effective mentors learn to help students feel authority over their own projects, starting from the beginning of their research experiences. “[The research project] needs to be an idea that [the students] have and that they're really passionate about and willing to pursue,” said Nicolaus. She went on to note that without this passion, students can have a hard time finding the determination to complete the research well.

Carretta also wants prospective Peer Mentors to know that “there’s not one perfect type” of student who can be an effective mentor. All students have something valuable to contribute to the group and to their students. Carretta hopes that the new group will enter the role with a passion for mentorship.

Nicolaus encourages the new Peer Mentors to embrace the socially supportive side of their role. “Do whatever [you] can in the community even if it seems like a really small step,” said Nicolaus. “[That small step] can make a really big difference for somebody.”

Original reporting by Zaria Talley