Lehigh University students have an invaluable resource to help them navigate the occasionally murky waters of college life: Each other.
Allison Gulati, associate dean of students, says that the university’s numerous peer-education programs cover a wide variety of topics and are based on research that shows that students learn a great deal from their peers and that peers have a stronger influence on them than anyone else in the college environment.
“When we have important messages to convey to our students,” she says, “it only makes sense to use the most influential source to communicate those messages.”
Student-to-student outreach begins even before the first day of their first year on campus. Upperclassmen serve as “the backbone” of Lehigh’s orientation programming, according to Lori Bolden McClaind, assistant dean of students and head of the First-Year Experience.
“We have them lead discussions on issues such as academic integrity and making good decisions,” McClaind says. “We have a presentation for the entire incoming class that goes over alcohol, partying, roommate issues, and so on. It throws out a lot of the different issues that are going on with our students. We really look for the orientation leaders to facilitate those conversations and help students make smart decisions.”
Peer education continues once classes begin, and much of the programming focuses on leadership, which benefits both underclassmen and their student mentors, say Lehigh officials.
“Students that engage in peer mentoring on a consistent basis are significantly more likely to intellectually understand and act in congruence with socially responsible leadership practices, which is why our office sees the role of student mentoring as integral to our programs,” says Jessica Manno, assistant dean of students for student leadership development.
Peer-to-peer leadership programming takes a variety of forms:
Student Leadership Trainers
are undergraduates who serve as presenters and facilitators at various Office of Student Leadership and Development programs and workshops. Most frequently, they present on public speaking, communication, conflict management, goal setting, event planning, decision-making and leadership styles. A similar group, Kaleidoscope, focuses on diversity workshops.
Ropes Course Facilitators
are undergraduate and graduate students trained to facilitate outdoor experiential exercises focusing on communication, teamwork and creative group problem solving. They use trees, wires, poles and other equipment in these exercises.
Leadership Lehigh Team Leaders
are juniors and seniors who work with first- and second-year students to help clarify concepts presented in the larger setting. They are trained in public speaking, facilitation and presentation, and facilitate workshops and group meetings on such topics as leadership styles, core values clarification, goal setting, team effectiveness and project management.
Within the fraternity and sorority system, the Greek EMerging Leaders
(GEM) program features upperclass Greek students mentoring incoming members of the Greek community to foster excellence within both individual chapters and the entire Greek system as a whole.
“Peer education works well because it supports a co-learner rather than a hierarchical education perspective,” says Jess (Misner) Diehl, Greek life leadership coordinator. “Peer educators are able to meet with other students ‘where they’re at’ and translate knowledge to real-life situations. The practice allows for self-empowerment and growth for peer facilitators who contribute to their own leadership development through the encouragement and education of others.
“As students witness their peers exhibiting positive leadership characteristics and creating nurturing environments that support and sustain future leadership development, the more willing they are to personally engage themselves and others, resulting in growth, which is at the true core of transformational leadership,” she adds.
Lehigh’s Health and Wellness Center has also formed and trained several student groups to impart important information through peer-education programs. University students assist each other in numerous ways:
Buzzed is an education program about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. The emphasis is on moderation in alcohol use, the elimination of tobacco use and the promotion of healthier behaviors.
The Healthy Hawks program discusses healthy lifestyle choices.
Sexperts are students trained to assist with sexual health matters, while the Women Center’s “Break the Silence” group offers peer-to-peer sexual-assault education and staffs a hotline for victims to call
“Public health research shows that students get most of their information from fellow students, even in middle school,” says health promotions coordinator Rajika E. Reed. “That’s why we have peer educators. They use games and have lots of giveaways and make it more fun and interactive. They really do know what’s going on in other students’ lives, and they’re better able to relate to them.”