Story Student Success

Student Mentors: Peer-to-Peer Power

Hazel Kelly

Especially for first-generation students just starting college, peer mentoring can make all the difference.

Humboldt State RAMP mentor Luisa Seg​ovia (left) meets with Humboldt State student Emigdia Macario to provide support and resources to help her succeed at college. Courtesy of Kellie Jo Brown/Humboldt State 


​If you're a student at a CSU campus, your mentor could be as close as the person sitting next to you in class. Especially if you're a first-generation student in your first year of college, having someone to help you navigate the new world of academics (and more), can make a big difference. Support like this can even set you up for the ultimate success: earning your degree. 

Peer mentoring isn't new, but more California State University campuses are ramping up these programs as a way to meet students where they're at and give them individualized guidance. In fact, 17 CSU campuses expanded their peer mentoring programs during the 2017-18 academic year, according to the Graduation Initiative 2025 progress report presented to the California legislature. Nearly 262,000 of the CSU's current students will be the first in their families to earn a degree, so the positive impacts of peer mentoring are far reaching. 

Learn more about the ways our students are finding support from their peers across the campuses of the CSU.

Humboldt State: Mentors First

What It Is: Since 2014, Humboldt State University's Retention through Academic Mentoring Program (RAMP) has provided one-to-one peer mentoring for each of the campus's first-time, first-generation freshmen (more than 50 percent of HSU's freshmen fall into that category), says RAMP director Tracy Smith.

Every fall, about 800 incoming students are each assigned to a peer student mentor who helps them develop good study habits, teaches them about campus culture and university policies, and lets them know about other student support resources.

"You are making an impact in someone's life, sometimes greater than you know," says Kristina Wolf, a RAMP lead student mentor and a mentee in 2016-17. "Students are just reaching an incredibly important place in their life, beginning college, where everything is new and sometimes a little scary."

peer mentoring at Humboldt State

"RAMP is here to help students through this transition point in their life and hopefully support them in building the tools to succeed in their future college career and beyond," says Kristina Wolf, RAMP student mentor (left), pictured here with student Maria Angelic Garcia. Courtesy of Kellie Jo Brown/Humboldt State

How It Works: Each student mentor—there are about 30 to 36 in total—meets with their mentees every three to four weeks; in between, the pair communicate by text, email or phone.

"During these meetings the peer mentors foster the importance of being proactive," explains Smith, adding that mentors share resources related to addressing the stresses first-year students typically feel, such as homesickness, imposter syndrome or financial worries, to name a few. 

"Students who can anticipate the expectations of campus educators have a huge advantage in navigating the first year."

Samantha Martinez, RAMP coordinator and an HSU alumna pursuing her master's of education, says that while the program actively supports the university's efforts for retaining freshmen, the core of their work is in providing support and development of the student mentors

"RAMP is really about building a proactive, strong support system for our mentors and that trickles down to our freshmen," agrees Smith. "We are helping to develop future professionals who are becoming change agents for our campus and community."  

Smith adds that RAMP would not be successful without their campus partners (learning communities, academic advising, TRiO programs and many more), which help freshmen build connections and relationships across campus.

To Learn More: Humboldt State's RAMP

CSU Bakersfield: Science of Success

What It Is: Peer mentoring is a key part of the STEM Pathways program at CSU Bakersfield's School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering (NSME),  which places first-time freshmen who declare select STEM degrees in a learning community that supports them during their first year of college.​

NSME Pathways mentor Chris Ramirez is also a first-generation student. He hopes to pursue a residency in neurosurgery after medical school. Courtesy of Chris Ramirez

​​"Research shows that peer mentors are invaluable for success for underrepresented or first-generation students," says Jaimi Paschal, Advising Center and Pathways coordinator at CSUB. 

For that reason, the program strives to have a diverse pool of peer mentors. "When students see people who are like them," adds Paschal, "they tend to have better retention."

How It Works: Postbaccalaureate student Chris Ramirez is one such peer mentor. Now majoring in biology and planning to enter medical school, Ramirez is in his second year of mentoring; for the 2018-19 academic year, he's working with eight CSUB biology students.

​​Ramirez meets with his mentees as a group every week and communicates with each via text message. One-on-one meetings with mentees are scheduled as needed, he says. "I came into the program last year not knowing what to expect, and over the past three semesters I've really seen the growth in students. It's really rewarding when they do well in classes."

Other peer-to-peer mentoring programs welcome students pursuing any undergraduate degree, but the Pathways community is made up only of first-time freshmen STEM majors in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, computer science, geology, human biology, math, pre-nursing and physics.

"They really want your guidance," says Ramirez, who has answered questions about choosing a minor, getting into medical school and even getting a credit card. "I see myself in a lot of these students. I wish there was someone there for me back when I was a freshman."

To Learn More: CSU Bakersfield's NSME Pathways Program

CSU Northridge: Tailor-made Mentoring for LGBTQIA Students

What It Is: California State University, Northridge created peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities for the LGBTQIA student community starting in spring 2012, not long before CSUN's Pride Center opened its doors. "We provide that listening ear and support," explains Sarina Loeb, manager of the CSUN Pride Center and an alumna of Sonoma State and CSUN. "Over the years, it's been very helpful for students to confide in that peer to learn about what it was like transitioning to campus."

How It Works: Every student assistant on the Pride Center staff is trained in mentoring skills. When a student asks about the program, Loeb first meets with the student to pair them with a mentor who's likely to be a good fit.

"We really listen to what our students need and we adapt our program to meet their needs," Loeb says, adding that her goal is a personalized mentor-mentee relationship. "Some may want to meet three times a semester and they're good. Others may want to meet more frequently."

Loeb says students often talk one-on-one with their mentors about sexuality and gender identity or to learn ways to get connected or involved at CSUN. Sometimes, students inquire about mentoring but don't follow through with the program either because they're not ready or comfortable making that step yet. "We continue to modify and add to our programming to ensure we are meeting the needs of our students," she says."

To Learn More: CSU Northridge's Pride Center

Sacramento State: Teaching Wellness

What It Is: At Sacramento State's Peer Health Educator Internship program, student interns earn course credit for teaching peers about wellness, including nutrition, alcohol and drugs, mental health and healthy relationships.

Sacramento State peer health manager Gabrielle Espinosa (top right) with her Peer Health Educator (PHE) intern group. After graduation, Espinosa hopes to attend a public health scholar program and eventually earn a master’s of public health to pursue her dream job as a public health consultant for the CDC. Courtesy of Gabrielle Espinosa

While the Peer Health Educators (PHE) advocate wellness to their student community, peer mentors support them—in the form of student managers who already completed the PHE program, ensuring a legacy of peer-led health and wellness promotion on campus.

How It Works: Eight to 10 PHE student managers maintain an ongoing mentoring relationship with about 40 to 50 PHE interns each year and help run the program.

"This experience really gave me a place to learn and grow as a person and a professional … It has opened so many doors for me," says PHE student manager Gabrielle Espinosa, who began as a PHE intern in her sophomore year and graduates with her bachelor's in family studies in May 2019.

Espinosa, along with peer health manager Nathan Mao, co-manages nine PHE interns who work with the wider student community to reduce harmful use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. 

"Our job is to build a platform for the interns to create their own [health education] outreach work with students using their own ideas," Espinosa says, explaining how her past mentors helped her bring her own ideas to light and excel at something she was passionate about.

To Learn More: Sacramento State's Health & Wellness Promotion

3 Good Reasons to Pay It Forward

If you want to become a peer mentor, you could reap big rewards for helping out your fellow students:

1. Your grades might improve. Jaimi Paschal of CSU Bakersfield says that one STEM Pathways mentor's GPA went up just from being a mentor. Because she urged her mentees to study so much, she had to walk the walk herself and improved her own study habits, says Paschal.

2. You'll become a better listener—and thinker. CSUN's Pride Center mentors have found that sharing knowledge has developed their listening skills. "I see the growth in their critical thinking skills," adds Sarina Loeb, noting that many of her student assistants go on to pursue a master's degrees in social work. "Mentoring is a great transferrable skill for them."

3. You'll be more employable. Another benefit for student mentors: the clout that comes with being part of a well-regarded organization. When Tracy Smith's student mentors leave Humboldt State's RAMP program, they're able to get a job nearly anywhere on campus, thanks to the training they've received and their new leadership skills. 

Sacramento State student Gabrielle Espinosa says that being a mentor in the peer health educator program helped hone her networking skills; she landed a public affairs internship at Planned Parenthood this semester simply by submitting her resume through a Sac State staff member. "They took me without even an interview," says Espinosa.