Distance Learning Peer Mentors

“When you take a class in front of your computer, you need support, advice, and sometimes, something as simple as a little compassion and understanding,” says recent graduate and peer mentor Desiree Leary.

Starting with Questions

Leary should know. When she and Stephanie Gabelmann, a fellow online peer mentor, began studying in Rutgers School of Communication and Information’s online Master of Library and Information Science, they had asked many of the same questions that their classmates were now asking them. But now, their classmates had not only Rutgers staff but also a peer to turn to for answers.

“One classmate contacted me with a long list of questions about courses to focus on, term bill due dates, the best place to buy books, what to wear to the orientation,” Gabelmann says. The peer mentors offered chat sessions and online office hours to help classmates feel less isolated learning from home. Advice provided ranged from how to get linked to a chat session with classmates to helping students match their courses with area of specialization, from “How do I pay my bill?” to “Can I work full time and manage the coursework?”

“Online, it’s so easy to feel—or even be—disconnected. So it was so great to get a call at the start of the program, to have Stephanie tell me ‘We’re here to help if you need us.’ It puts a human voice to the program and sets a welcoming tone,” says Trevar Riley-Reid, a student in the online master's program.

Creative Answers

The five-year-old online master’s program gives students the option to earn their degree entirely online. “Courses are offered online mostly for people who work full time and cannot afford the time it takes to come to campus,” explains Laura Stanik, assistant director of the school’s Professional Development Studies and a peer-mentor supervisor. “This allows more students the opportunity to earn graduate degrees and learn about new technology and accepted practices in their field.”

Peer mentoring for the program was first offered in the spring of 2008. “With the increasing number of students in the online MLIS program, more needed support, but the hours in the day and our staff size weren’t changing,” says Stanik. “We needed a creative solution that would help us support more people. We also wanted to create opportunities for community-building for the online students who wanted it.”

Leary and Gabelmann were hired as peer mentors because they “understood the specific difficulties of adjustments faced by our diverse online population,” Stanik says. “They brought with them different work backgrounds, could articulate the problems they saw, and, most importantly, had a willingness to help their peers. We’ve been so impressed by their innovative ideas.”

Virtual Helping Hand

Gabelmann, above right, who works as a children’s librarian at her local library in Boonton, focused on helping new students navigate online classes, utilize web-based Rutgers resources to find information on student life topics, and cope with the isolation that online learners sometimes experience.

Leary, above left, who resides in Brooklyn and had worked as an archive coordinator for the StoryCorps oral history project, supported students who were further along in their studies with curriculum and resources issues and coordinated alumni communications and events. Both came to campus before the fall and spring semesters to help put together two-day orientations for other online learners.

“As peer mentors, we acted as liaisons between the online MLIS students and the faculty and administration. It gave online MLIS students a way to express their needs and opinions, and also provided valuable feedback on how people apply their learning to their current jobs,” explains Leary.

Gabelmann and Leary completed their assignment as peer mentors in May when they earned their master’s degrees, but two new peer mentors will bring their unique perspectives and experiences to the job as they take over and extend the virtual helping hand that Gablemann and Leary so readily provided.