The Importance of Peer Mentoring

When I was a faculty member, one of my colleagues used to say that students do not aspire to be like their professors; they aspire to be seniors. Graduation is the goal, and one of the things that helps students get there is hearing from their peers. To that end, UH Hilo is involved in a number of peer mentoring activities, which allow students to learn from students.

For example, at the student-designed Ka Pouhana Mentoring Program, university student mentors team up with faculty members to give individualized support to local high school students as they start their years at UH Hilo. The program is modeled on a number of successful student-led and partnership mentoring models as well as research on adolescent development and student support conducted by Margary Martin, an associate professor at UH Hilo’s School of Education.

Since fall 2022, 10 faculty mentors and peer mentors at Ka Pouhana have provided foundational support to about 50 first-year students from Hawaiʻi Island during their first two years at UH Hilo. It is a cohort model where both seasoned students and faculty focus on imparting a sense of belonging and wellbeing to new students while also nurturing leadership development and a strong sense of service to the community.

Another way for students to connect with peers and faculty is through UH Hilo’s First Year Experience program, which organizes orientation for new students at the start of each semester. A big part of FYE is facilitating the Mentor Collective, a “start to finish” resource of mentors (peers, faculty, staff) designed to help students build a strong foundation for academic and social success. This personal outreach really imparts a clear understanding that our university community is ‘ohana to each and every student.

An avenue for Native Hawaiian students to find support is through the Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, which promotes Native Hawaiian student success through culturally appropriate services and activities, including peer mentoring. The Ho‘olau peer mentor service is offered to first-year students and transfer students to help them navigate their new university life. Tutoring services are offered in Hawaiian studies, the sciences, hula, and other fields. Kiha Stevens, a student mentor for Kīpuka, describes the center as “a home away from home, and a family away from family.” For many, Kīpuka provides this sense of ‘ohana, where students can find both academic and cultural mentors to help them on their UH Hilo journey.

We also engage our graduate students with undergraduates, notably in the sciences and education, where mentorship, knowledge, and inspiration are freely exchanged. For example, undergrads in our Keaholoa STEM Scholars program are working with graduate students in both the heritage management program and the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program. Heritage management grad students Shania Tamagyongfal and Jerolynn Myazoe and environmental studies undergraduate Tromainne Joab are working together on research into oral histories of Marshallese and Yapese voyaging. Graduate and undergraduate students at the School of Education are jointly participating in local ‘āina-based experiences to enhance respect and understanding of place.

This type of learning environment—where more experienced students reach out to mentor up-and-coming undergraduates in the spirit of community and ‘ohana—also benefits the mentors. Actively introducing someone less experienced to new information (social or academic) or to the whole culture of academia in general, or working with someone less experienced in a research project where peer mentors can impart skills they have already learned, helps the mentor retain that knowledge, helps those skills become ingrained. Mentor and mentee benefit mutually and much more successfully than if each were siloed off into only reading text books and listening to lectures. This is why we practice hands-on learning and peer mentoring.

At UH Hilo, we are guided by the wise words, ʻaʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi (one learns from many sources). In our mission to challenge students to reach their highest level of academic achievement by inspiring learning, discovery, and creativity inside and outside the classroom, one of the most successful sources of learning is peer mentorship.      

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin