Peer mentoring a tool for graduate student success

Graduate student Chelsea Osbron working in a lab.

An individualized, hands-on program connecting first- and second-year graduate students with peers in their final years of graduate school is offering students one of the greatest resources to succeed — mentorship.

The new peer network, established for graduate students in the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine last fall, pairs students early in their studies with mentors who have already been in their shoes. While the program is voluntary for those in their second year of graduate school, those in their first year are automatically enrolled. Mentors must apply and be selected to the program annually.

“Graduate school can be an isolating experience, and sometimes students aren’t sure who to turn to, especially within their first few months. So, whether it’s different nuances in the lab or searching for mental health services on campus, this program is about supporting them in whatever they need. It also supports WSU’s and the college’s dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives by providing a welcoming, resourceful environment for grad students coming to us from all walks of life,” said Anita Peralta, graduate education program manager.

Peralta created the Peer Network with intentionality, a passion for student success and Coug spirit. As someone who has professionally worked in WSU mentoring programs since 2015, as well as being a product of similar student support initiatives herself, Peralta listened to what students said they needed when creating the program.

What sets the program apart from others is that it is not very common to find peer mentor programs intended for graduate students, particularly those working in scientific research. Graduate-level mentor programs that do exist are not as formalized nor consistent throughout the academic year.

“This isn’t something mentors do in the beginning of the semester and fizzles off,” Peralta said.

Mentors are expected to meet with their mentees monthly, fellow mentors once a semester and mentees as a group at least once every semester. Participation is individualized to meet the student’s needs.

“It’s as much of a commitment as you want it to be,” said Chelsea Osbron, a third-year graduate student in Molecular Biosciences and mentor.

Osbron said the program is flexible, as rescheduling or canceling meetings altogether happens. Other students in their second year prefer to connect via email when issues arise.

“I like talking to students about their hobbies, pets, plans for vacations, how class is going, lab rotations, and if they have chosen their thesis lab. My students are pretty independent, so most of my interactions with them are in passing, walking down the halls, or going to lunch with them,” Osbron said.

Chris Akinsulie, a first-year Immunology and Infectious Diseases graduate student who moved from France last year, said the program is especially beneficial for international students.

“The first two years of graduate school can be very daunting,” Akinsulie said. “You need a lot of mental strength to cope. Even for me, moving all the way from Africa to Europe before coming to the United States, that level of stress can be crazy, so having someone to talk to is invaluable.”

Conversations between Akinsulie and his mentor, Elizabeth Borghesan, range from questions about the lab procedure and protocol to the Pullman and WSU communities to his personal life.

“If I run into a problem, she is among the first three people I would reach out to,” Akinsulie said. 

He said Borghesan has also been beneficial in assisting him in selecting a home lab to conduct his studies.By design, mentors are paired with students inside of their study area.

Second-year neuroscience graduate student Ginny Park, also a first-generation college student, said it’s one of the program’s greatest strengths.

“In the beginning, I was timid about the program because it is time away from your projects and time away from things you have to do, but honestly, since participating in the program it has helped open my eyes to other research that could correlate with my own,” Park said. “It’s interesting to see other perspectives and hear how other labs operate and maybe integrate that into your lab.”

Mentors also have their takeaways.

“I have learned a lot about how I communicate and how I can be a better mentor by understanding what types of questions I can ask to facilitate conversations,” Osbron said. “I am pretty introverted naturally, and I am not as good with small talk, so learning how and being aware of that is going to be a skill that will always be there in my life; I want mentoring to always be an aspect of my career.”