Melissa Holzberg:Peer mentorship program would benefit SMPA students

Getting advice from an upperclassman can change the course of a student’s time at GW. Learning from a peer mentor who knows the ropes not only makes college easier, but could be an important part of a student’s success.

For students in the Elliott School of International Affairs and the honors program, this opportunity is built in through a peer advising program. But students in the School of Media and Public Affairs aren’t so lucky.

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When I enrolled in GW as a political communication major, I assumed my adviser would know exactly how to help me through my four years in SMPA. It never dawned on me that I’d have to figure things out on my own. Because my adviser was from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and wasn’t familiar with the SMPA requirements, she couldn’t advise me on what to take, and I ended up taking classes without knowing the prerequisites. And once I got my SMPA adviser as a sophomore, I found myself signing up for classes filled with mostly freshmen because I was never told when to take them.

This is why SMPA should initiate a peer mentorship program. A mentorship program would work similarly to the peer advisers in the honors program and in the Elliott School. Upon entering SMPA freshman or sophomore year, students would be assigned an upperclassman mentor, who would be able to help them navigate class registration, give them advice based on their own SMPA experience and fill in information gaps during a student’s first year.

However, a peer mentorship program can’t just appear. Rather, for it to be effective, an initiative like this has to have student interest.

“It’s very important that [a mentorship initiative] comes from the students. This should not come from us,” School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno said in an interview last week. “But if anyone is interested, I’d be happy to meet with them and direct them.”

The lack of communication between CCAS advisers and SMPA students often leaves students confused and could make it harder for them to make informed choices about their courses and plans. I decided to not study abroad during college. However many students in SMPA want to, and this gap between CCAS and SMPA can at times make it hard for that dream to come true. Because so many of the SMPA classes are only taught on a semester-to-semester basis, it can be hard to get credit to transfer over from an abroad program. If you don’t start taking SMPA classes your freshman year, you could find yourself out of luck.

A peer mentor would be able to sit down with freshmen and sophomores and brainstorm course options with them. Having a person to go to who’s been through the same processes that you’re going through now is a good way to learn from others’ mistakes and make more informed choices.

A peer advising program isn’t a new idea. In 2012, students in SMPA launched the Media Student Community Council. The organization arranged speakers and had a mentorship initiative. But after two years, the program failed to pick up speed and fizzled out in spring 2014, when most of the members were seniors and freshmen.

“We don’t have the staff to coordinate big, full mentorship programs, which was the benefit of these guys [in MSCC] because it was a student activity and they were driving on their own which was an interesting thing,” Sesno said.

SMPA is taking certain initiatives to help students from a different advising standpoint.

In September, SMPA launched the Career Access Network. The program runs networking events, has subsidy money for students working unpaid internships and is looking to start an alumni mentorship program. This program would allow alumni and students to have greater access to one another and help students navigate the world as they prepare to leave SMPA and seek internship and job opportunities.

The alumni mentorship program would allow students to become a part of a network, instead of just focusing on getting through school.

“Part of what I believe students are buying, and believe they are buying [when they come to SMPA], is a network. A network that helps them launch a career and network that will help them through a career,” Sesno said.

While the new emphasis on career searches and internship development is necessary, a student won’t be ready to leave SMPA with an internship or job if the process of getting through school is too convoluted from the beginning.

A peer mentorship program is not a cure all – but in the meantime, creating a new peer mentorship initiative or reigniting MSCC can only help. I’ve found throughout my time in SMPA that students here love to talk about the classes they’re taking and what the rest of their college plan is like.

Knowing how proud students are to be in this program is what gives me the confidence to say that upperclassmen would volunteer to sign up to be a mentor to a freshman or sophomore student. And I can say that I would one day gladly do the same.

Melissa Holzberg, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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