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The University of Windsor's Victoria Mahon found her peer mentor so helpful that she volunteered to be one herself.

GEOFF ROBINS

Navigating a university campus can be an overwhelming and lonely experience for new students. Having peer support can make all the difference to a smooth transition.

Victoria Mahon, a 20-year-old, third-year political science student at the University of Windsor, knows what it is like from both sides. After signing up for the university's Connecting4Success program during a summer orientation session, she was matched with a student mentor for her first year. It was such a good experience that she volunteered to be a mentor herself the following year.

"Before school even started, I had a mentor reach out to me who was a double major in my program in business," says Ms. Mahon.

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"He worked with me throughout the entire school year, giving me advice on what courses to take or where to find the best study spots.

We met up once or twice a month for coffee and to walk around a bit. He was kind of like your first friend entering university."

Ms. Mahon says one of the best things about the program is that it helped put things into perspective during stressful times.

"When you're in first year, you can be really panicky about the transition into university," she says. "If you get a bad grade or you're not making friends, you have somebody to calm you who's already been through it. With their wisdom of being a year or two above you, they can tell you that it gets better."

She adds: "Connecting4Success … offers a lot of great services, such as workshops on different campus services and social events like dinner and a movie for all the mentors and mentees once a month."

Caiti Casey, Connecting4Success/Bounce Back program co-ordinator at the University of Windsor, explains: "When folks first come here, it's really hard to have a sense of community immediately. But we know that having a sense of community is one of the big predictors of student success at postsecondary institutions."

In addition to the support available through Connecting4Success, a volunteer program, there is a peer-support component to a new program she manages called Bounce Back, which is focused on students who are languishing – not doing well academically and often personally. Piloted last year, the program has both a professional staff and a paid student staff.

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The student mentors receive core training at the beginning of the year, where they cover boundary setting, active listening and organizational skills. Then they continue with bi-monthly training throughout the year.

“The students really seem to enjoy the peer component and find it helpful,” says Ms. Casey. “We don’t ask student mentors to do academic intervention because that would require specific training, so we’ve separated that out. These aren’t tutors.”

But sometimes academic peer support is exactly what a student wants, particularly for exams. That is where Students Offering Support (SOS) shines. Founded in 2004 as a student club at Wilfrid Laurier University, SOS is a registered charity that offers enriched Exam-AID sessions for a small fee, typically $20. The tutors delivering the sessions are outstanding students working on a voluntary basis, and the money raised goes toward sustainable education projects in marginalized communities in Africa and Latin America. Currently, SOS has more than 1,000 tutors at 25 university campuses across Canada. Most sessions are offered in science and business, with a scattering in other fields.

Jamie Arron, executive director of SOS at its Toronto head office, says students really like the "by students, for students" approach.

"The friendly environment allows students to feel comfortable at a stressful time when they're getting into exams," Mr. Arron says. "They can ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking the professor.

It's that peer-to-peer model that drives the success of it. Last year, 96 per cent of all attendees said they would recommend the sessions to a friend."

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The tutors go through an online training course, including the type of content to cover, how to source and what materials can and cannot be used. SOS executives review the content and new tutors have rehearsals before facing their peers. In some cases, professors recommend students as tutors, contribute materials and help promote the sessions, Mr. Arron says. It works a little differently at each campus.

"A lot of our tutors have benefited directly from SOS sessions themselves, so want to pay it forward," Mr. Arron says.

Connecting4Success's Ms. Mahon is one of the more than 100,000 students who has experienced SOS first-hand, having attended some of the organization's exam preparation sessions at UWindsor and as a volunteer on an SOS outreach trip to Guatemala.

“Their exam prep classes were insanely valuable,” she says. “It’s a really valuable experience I recommend to every student.”

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