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Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Peer Mentor Programme thrives despite Covid-19

UNIQUE SKILLS: Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Peer Mentor Programme mentors and retention officers assist first-year students to transition smoothly from high school to university. UNIQUE SKILLS: Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Peer Mentor Programme mentors and retention officers assist first-year students to transition smoothly from high school to university.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed every area of the higher education experience and the Peer Mentor Programme, which was piloted in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2019, has been very successful in assisting first-year students.

The programme was started to assist first-year students to transition smoothly from high school to university.  Programme Coordinator, Felicity Harris says it has been found that many students drop out during their first year of study for many reasons. This includes the fact that they feel they "cannot fit into" the university culture. They feel lost, they have no friends, are the first in their family to attend university and so have no one to lean on for advice and support.

“Engineering is no exception to this, and we felt that having a mentor could, in some way, assist first-year students to persevere at their studies and eventually graduate. We turned to the CPUT First Year Experience (FYE) programme for assistance and they guided us through the recruitment and training of mentors. Our mentors are senior students in the Department who have come forward to take on this responsibility, as they feel that they can be role models to the first years, as well as guide them through how to get through their first year of study,” Harris explains.

She adds that the mentors must be someone who has passed all their first-year subjects well so that, “we can be assured that they will be a good example to the first years”.  The mentors must also be able to share some of their successes with the first years and also the department must know that they (mentors) will be able to cope with their own academic work while assisting the first years.

The programme started with eight mentors, increased to 25 in 2020, and with the overwhelming need and great success of support to students during Remote Teaching and Learning, has now grown to 38 mentors and two retention officers. “The team has shown tremendous commitment to their task and have extensively helped students. This has been a tremendous help to the Department since all interaction with first-year students has been virtual thus far,” says Harris. 

The mentors were under tremendous pressure since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown. Many first-year students felt extremely isolated and panicked while working from home and they turned to their mentors for assistance. Many first-years also needed a friend during Covid-19.

PhD Student, Monica Oghenekome says: “I am highly delighted and motivated because being a retention officer has given me the privilege and platform to reach out to first-year students who will be academic leaders in engineering tomorrow”.

Third-year student, Phelile Shitlhangu says: “I became a peer mentor last year because I know how difficult and lonely it is when you are a first-year student and you are from as far as Limpopo, and doing a difficult course like Mechanical Engineering. I assist not only the first-years but also advise other mentors on how they could help their mentees,” Phelile remarks.

Harris adds: “I am extremely proud of how the programme has grown. Having a programme like this up and running in our department has always been a dream of mine, and I am certain that the programme can only go from strength to strength.

“Many of our youth are first-generation students, they should be commended for their courage and tenacity. They should never be made to feel that "they do not belong".

Written by Des