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a group of young women sit around a table

Peer Advisor Leaders get training in the New Student Connections office.

USF's peer mentoring initiatives keep students on track to graduate, enter workforce

By Donna Smith, University Communications and Marketing

two women work at an outdoor table

Take a look around the bustling student centers or shaded outdoor tables across USF’s campuses, and you’ll find many students putting their heads together to tackle a class assignment or studying some new material. Even if a student doesn’t have a “study buddy,” USF offers dozens of structured programs in which students can find peers who are trained to conduct academic tutoring or offer advice ranging from the management of money and time, to which residence hall serves the best food. These interactions are beneficial to all parties involved.

Student success is USF’s No. 1 goal in its Strategic Plan. It is also at the core of the Florida Board of Governors’ performance-based funding model, which is tied to millions of dollars in state funding that a university can earn based on outcomes. USF has historically been a top-performing institution and is the only state university to finish in the top four every year since the state implemented the plan in 2014. 

“Students are great resources for each other. If you think someone has experiences in common with your own, that forms a certain bond."  - Thomas Miller, associate professor, College of Education

USF’s first-time-in-college (FTIC) retention rate has steadily been on the rise – it stood at about 92 percent in the 2022-23 academic year – one of the highest in the State University System. Thomas Miller, an associate professor in the College of Education, has devoted his career to student success, and he believes that peer mentoring programs offered at USF have been integral to retention.    

“Students are great resources for each other,” Miller said. “If you think someone has experiences in common with your own, that forms a certain bond. You trust your faculty members too, but it’s not quite the same, because they might be the age of your parents or grandparents and can't completely identify with your life.”

Some colleges, such as the Judy Genshaft Honors College, require peer mentoring. First-year Honors College students connect with upperclassmen in the program for guidance and networking. FTIC students in the College of Engineering are assigned to groups of 10-15 students who take either calculus, chemistry or physics together. In both programs, students are paired with peer mentors who meet with them once a week in a free, zero-credit course built into their schedules. During that time, they can ask questions, work on their homework and gain a better understanding of the material from their mentor as well as their classmates. Mary Goodwin, director of student services in the College of Engineering, is a longtime proponent of learning teams such as these.

“Engineering is a rigorous program,” Goodwin said. “This model is powerful because everyone is working towards the same goal, and they have this built-in social support and they’re pulling for each other and trying to help.”

Goodwin said it’s not only academic support that helps the College of Engineering have one of the highest retention rates. Collaborating with peers is also a way to form friendships early on, which facilitates persistence.

“Freshmen really need a way to settle down, make friends and get stress levels down,” Goodwin said. “If you can create friendships that first month or semester, they’ll carry on to the next semester or even throughout their time at USF.”

peer advisor leaders sit at a table during a training

As a PAL, Emma Bole checks in with 20-30 students each week.

The New Student Connections office offers FTIC students trained Peer Advisor Leaders, or PALs, who can help them develop strategies for academic success, offer advice for settling into college life, and help explore ways to get involved and connected on campus.

USF senior Emma Bole sees peer mentoring as an act of service. She became a PAL last June, motivated by a desire to give back what she received during her first year at USF. She connects with 20-30 students each week to offer help finding resources, answer questions or just lend an ear to what they are experiencing in college.

“I had a PAL my freshman year,” Bole said. “I was super overwhelmed, but just having a student who understood and could offer advice made me feel so much better.”

Peer mentoring isn’t exclusive to FTIC students. One pilot program, Peer Assisted Study Sessions, or PASS, offers undergraduate students taking liberal arts mathematics or Composition I the opportunity to study with a trained PASS leader who recently took and excelled in the same courses. Academic Peer Mentoring, another program being piloted at USF, offers one-on-one support from peer mentors trained to teach study skills, time management and reading comprehension, as well as to offer advice on how to stay motivated.

Jameez shows off her a grades

Jameez Lawes shows off the A papers she credits to peer tutoring.

USF junior Jameez Lawes says she has truly benefited from her academic peer mentor, Juliana Escuerdo Galvanini.

“Juliana has helped me figure out different methods for reading – my art history class can rack up to 60 pages a week,” Lawes said. “She also makes sure I’m learning the material and shows me study and time management techniques.”

Lawes commutes to classes from her home in Lakeland, which she says makes it challenging to join clubs or organizations, so she looks forward to her Wednesday meetings with Galvanini.

“I'm like, ‘I get to see Juliana today!’,” Lawes said. “And I’ll get my list ready with things that I need help with. This has been so great for me, and I think peer mentoring programs would be helpful for anyone.”

Students interested in peer mentoring can start by visiting the Academic Success Center, or reach out to their program director or dean.

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