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Developing near-peer mentoring programs for grad students (opinion)


Positive mentorship experiences are central to fostering self-efficacy, success, well-being and inclusion of students, particularly women and racial and ethnic minorities. Nationwide initiatives such as the National Academies’ the Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM and the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experience in Research, among others, enable scalable mentorship training of researchers. However, research advising and training is still the predominant form of mentorship in graduate programs, often leaving graduate students to turn elsewhere when seeking psycho-social and career support.

In addition, graduate students often have disparate opportunities to develop their own mentorship skills, exacerbated by structural differences. For instance, the collaborative nature of science labs affords graduate students in STEM more opportunities for peer or near-peer mentorships than their humanities colleagues. First-generation, historically marginalized and international graduate students may also encounter barriers to accessing mentors and developing their own mentorship skills due to institutionally embedded hidden curricula and a lack of established networks.

As informal mentorships play a key role in psycho-social support and professional development at all career stages, peer or near-peer mentorship can reduce disparities in access to mentors and mentorship skills development. In this article, we describe a model of building a near-peer mentoring program between graduate mentors and undergraduate mentees through the example of Princeton University’s Music Mentoring Program, which one of us, Natalie, developed in the summer of 2022.

Supported by advisers from cross-campus initiatives and student collaborators, the program was born from Natalie’s desire to foster community and belonging and to support the specific professional development needs of undergraduate and graduate students affiliated with the music department. Through this case study, we aim to illustrate how to intentionally design programs around well-being and professional development that can be broadly adapted.

Intentionally Defining Program Mission and Values

Every well-designed program should begin with setting a clear purpose, specific objectives and measurable goals. Natalie developed the Music Mentoring Program by first researching current programs at Princeton University and the goals and structures that the music department could potentially adapt. She also drew from her lived experience as a graduate student and consulted with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff in the department to contextualize the program goals and structure according to its specific needs and environment.

Throughout these consultations and discussions, two main areas emerged as core values: well-being and professional development. Many mentorship programs across Princeton—such as ReMatch (Research Match) and the GradFUTURES Alumni Mentoring Program, which Sonali co-manages, and the Graduate Peer Coaches, Princeton University Mentoring Program (PUMP), Art and Archaeology Mentoring Program, Princeton Physics Mentoring and GSP Peer Mentoring Program—have threaded well-being and professional development into their programs.

Undergraduate and graduate students confirmed that creating opportunities to build greater community among people who were interested in music and developing mentorship skills were important goals. In addition, the students communicated the need for spaces to reflect on their passions and purpose. As a result, we defined well-being and professional development as core values of the Music Mentoring Program and designed its infrastructures and policies to specifically embed those values.

Designing Programs for Well-Being

After establishing well-being as a core value, the next step was to curate the matching process and overall accessibility of program to centralize mentee and mentor well-being. Toward that goal, Natalie consulted with Laura Murray from Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and Anne Laurita and Kathy Wagner from Princeton’s TigerWell Initiative on ways to foster inclusion, mindfulness and sensitivity to the diverse identities, interests, needs and schedules of mentors and mentees. In addition to a supportive consultation process focused on cultivating a “campus community and individual skills that support well-being across identities,” the TigerWell Initiative connected the Music Mentoring Program with other campus partners and provided seed grants to support its initiatives.

To be inclusive and to account for the varied ways students engage with music across the campus, participation in the program was open to any Princeton student affiliated with the music department—including those majoring in music, ensemble members and students taking any music course. The program further advanced values of well-being, open-access and flexible accommodations through open events like welcome receptions, mentor training and small group discussions. The varied structure and flexibility of events provided diverse means of engagement between mentees and mentors in alignment with their interests and availability.

In line with this open-access approach, the matching process was straightforward and easily accessible. To submit a matching request, mentees completed a short survey (three minutes) on the music department’s website and then had singular or recurring meetings with their matched mentor. The matching process gave program mentors the opportunity to share aspects of their backgrounds, experiences and identities in advance, so that potential mentees could request a mentor who broadly fit their specific needs.

Therefore, the program was designed around well-being by carefully tailoring the matching process, crafting accessible inclusion criteria and creating flexible ways for mentees and mentors to engage with one another throughout their time together.

Designing Programs for Professional Development

To support professional development, its second core value, the Music Mentoring Program has developed mentor trainings, group discussions and peer learning opportunities for mentors and its leadership team. In collaboration with the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and funded by the TigerWell Initiative, all mentors attend yearly training that includes reviewing program policies, developing or customizing their mentoring philosophy, and discussing best practices of mentorship—such as how to establish and clearly communicate expectations with mentees. The program also provides additional trainings on inclusive mentoring practices throughout the year, in collaboration with the Access, Diversity and Inclusion Team at Princeton’s Graduate School.

In addition, graduate students have had the opportunity to be part of the leadership team of the program. Such a leadership experience has strengthened their administrative skills and centered their perspectives in the decisions and directions of the program. Graduate students can select specific roles on the leadership team that are meaningful to them, such as coordinating events, developing assessment frameworks and forging collaborations with other departments and programs.

Undergraduate mentees similarly have benefited from professional development opportunities through meetings with their mentors and small group discussions. Conversations often unpack academic questions, such as decisions on choosing a major, learning about and applying to graduate school, and planning for the postdegree transition.

Through such professional development opportunities, mentors have been able to improve their mentorship, administrative and leadership skills, while mentees have enhanced their communication, time management and goal-setting skills.

Challenges and Recommendations

Even with intentional design, financial support from TigerWell and GradFUTURES, and a collaborative ecosystem, the Music Mentoring Program, like many other mentorship efforts, has encountered some challenges and pain points. We share those challenges as food for thought as you adapt or build similar programs.

Scaling the program to meet unexpectedly high engagement requests from both mentors and mentees has been a persistent problem, even in the second year of the program. Maintaining equity and sustainability are also particularly challenging. For example, the strong demand for mentors with a specific niche expertise like music composition can result in some mentors have far more mentees than others. Appropriately compensating mentors for their time and expertise is one way of cultivating equity, but acquiring sustained financial resources can be difficult.

Additionally, relying on a leadership team composed solely of graduate students can make the continuity of the program more problematic due to the changing priorities of and demands upon graduate students. While the Music Mentoring Program is continuing to grapple with these questions, its focus is still on balancing well-being with the academic flourishing of both graduate and undergraduate students affiliated with music department.

To summarize, we recommend that you develop approaches and test models of mentorship programs that best fit your institutional contexts. Through the example of Princeton’s Music Mentoring Program, we emphasize the importance of collaborating with constituents in identifying shared values and goals as well as designing mentorship programs with intention. To implement, scale and sustain such programs, you should harness the expansive expertise and capabilities in your university by building an ecosystem of support across graduate programs and campus initiatives.

We attribute the success of the Music Mentoring Program to the vast number of supporters, administrators, campus interlocutors, mentors and mentees who have shared their insights and participated in its creation and implementation. We hope our case study inspires other graduate students, faculty and staff to take the lead in developing mentorship programs for students’ well-being and professional development.

Natalie Miller (she/her) is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Princeton University, researching music’s effects on immersion in multimedia. She founded the Music Mentoring Program in the summer of 2022 and has continued to serve as program co-coordinator through the spring of 2024. Sonali Majumdar (she/her) is assistant dean for professional development in the GradFUTURES initiative of Princeton University’s Graduate School. She is an executive committee member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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