Hewitt’s peer mentorship program supports ninth graders in their transition to upper school by connecting them with seniors who can share guidance and perspective on the challenges and opportunities that high school brings. I decided to get involved in the peer mentorship program because I know that as a ninth grader I would have loved to hear about the upper school experience from a senior’s perspective. Remembering how scary and overwhelming it felt to start a new grade in a new building with new responsibilities inspired me to want to be a support system for my peers and help them build community as they began their high school experience.
To become a peer mentor, the first thing I had to do was complete an application that asked me to reflect on how I foster meaningful relationships, the skills and tools I thought ninth graders needed to be successful, and how I would handle various hypothetical scenarios as a mentor. After I was accepted into the program, the other peer mentors and I met with our faculty advisors — Coordinator of Experiential Initiatives Stephanie Dore, Upper School Dean of Students Jackie Rose, and Upper School Counselors Emily Bentinck-Smith and Amy Nichols — for training sessions. At these sessions we learned more about what it means to be a peer mentor, how to set guidelines and boundaries for our work with the ninth graders, and how to use our school values (kindness, honesty, respect, and curiosity) to guide our mentorship work around decision making, inclusivity, respect for diverse opinions, and ethical behavior. Ms. Dore, who co-chairs the Values Committee with Ms. Rose, points out that, “Peer mentors have gone through their own personal development in upper school, learning what Hewitt’s values mean to them and how to live them in their daily lives. This experience makes them uniquely qualified not only to build community within the ninth grade, but also to act as role models for younger students.”
Once our training was complete, we began meeting weekly, alternating between planning sessions with our faculty advisors and mentoring sessions with the ninth graders. The planning sessions have been critical opportunities for us to discuss what is going well, review how we are engaging with our mentees, troubleshoot any issues or problems we are having, and learn from one another’s successes. During these conversations, I often get advice from the other peer mentors that I can use in my own sessions. At the end of each planning meeting, my partner mentor and I make decisions about what topics we want to introduce to our mentees. My partner and I always come to our mentorship sessions with an agenda for what we plan to talk about, but we also make sure to leave time for more open conversation so that the ninth graders can ask questions or bring up concerns.
Throughout the fall, our sessions focused on adjusting to ninth grade and online learning, and participating in clubs and extracurriculars. Our mentees wanted to know how to manage their time while also discovering what they are most interested in, and they were curious about the classes, clubs, and other activities my partner and I participated in when we were in ninth grade. An important learning moment for me as a mentor came when, after sharing the various clubs and sports I had participated in as a freshman, my mentees started to express concern about whether they were doing enough or the “right” activities. My partner and I reassured the ninth graders by explaining that we had tried so many activities not because of any external pressure, but as a way to figure out and narrow down our individual interests. For example, I shared that when I first joined the Girls Who Code club in ninth grade I was not sure if I would be interested in coding, but I was curious to learn more about the subject. As I got more involved in the club I figured out how much I enjoyed working with technology, and now I am the head of Girls Who Code! I plan to study web design and digital media in college, and, as I shared with my mentees, I know it was my experiences in the club that helped me connect to a passion I want to pursue beyond Hewitt.
We spent the rest of that mentoring session talking about how extracurriculars are meant to be fun, not stressful, and encouraging our mentees to think of clubs and sports as a chance to explore many different potential interests and discover their own passions. Ms. Dore notes that these kinds of conversations are core to the peer mentorship program. “Beginning in ninth grade, Hewitt students have the opportunity to make choices about their academic schedule and activities and play an active role in developing their own individualized upper school experience. As twelfth graders, peer mentors have learned how to choose activities that connect with their sense of purpose and feel personally meaningful to them. Peer mentors are often also leaders of co-curricular activities, and so they bring both expertise and personal experience to their work teaching younger students not only how to identify their personal passions but also how to use their skills and interests to impact the world in a positive way.”
One of the most valuable skills I am learning as a peer mentor is how to develop community, which has been more difficult this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hewitt students are learning both online and in person, and because of social distancing we cannot be together in large groups or casually stop to chat in the halls. As a result, our mentee sessions have become an even more important chance to build connections. Ms. Nichols notes, “This year’s peer mentors are doing an incredible job finding creative ways to connect given the unique challenges of hybrid learning. They have shown an impressive ability to think flexibly and adapt to new circumstances in order to meet their goals.” My partner and I work hard to make sure everyone in our group — whether they are shy or extroverted — feels included and has the opportunity to speak. We try to engage our mentees by playing games, talking about casual topics like lunch, or asking them how they are feeling and what is causing them stress so that our sessions feel like normal conversations rather than lectures full of advice. Our goal is to create spaces where students get to know each other and learn to count on each other for a helping hand or even just a familiar face. We know that the first year of high school can be challenging and as peer mentors we understand how important it is to build a safe and supportive community within the ninth grade and across upper school grades.
Part of building this community involves learning how to make my mentees feel comfortable without blurring the lines between mentorship and friendship. At the start of the year, I was so focused on putting the ninth graders at ease that I sometimes went off topic and spent too much time talking about my own experiences. I realized that by chatting about my own life so much I was not setting clear boundaries about my role. My partner and I talked about this with Ms. Dore, Ms. Rose, and Ms. Nichols, and then worked with our mentees to develop rules for how to communicate with each other in a way that respected our unique relationship. Ms. Nichols helped us see that, “Peer mentors have to learn how to forge genuine relationships that respect professional boundaries, which is a skill they will continue to use throughout college and as they pursue their careers. In order to form any relationship we need to build trust, and part of building trust is letting people know who we are and what they can expect from us. As peer mentors, students are getting critical experience thinking through how to share details of their lives with their mentees in ways that feel appropriate and productive.”
I love the feeling of connection I get from being a peer mentor, especially right now with the isolation of the pandemic. It is rewarding to use my own experiences — from ninth grade through today — to help my fellow students feel more comfortable in their transition to upper school. I hope it is reassuring for them to know that they have a peer in the senior class who understands how they are feeling, who made it through that transition year, and who is there to support them. I think one of the most important lessons I have learned as a peer mentor is that we all have moments of feeling lost and needing direction. The ninth graders may look at me and think that since I am almost done with high school and getting ready for college I have it all figured out, but sometimes I am just as confused as they are. Being a peer mentor has helped me adjust to new ideas and environments and find comfort in the unknown, which are skills I know I will rely on when I leave Hewitt to start my college career.