New Peer Mentor Program Smooths the Way for Incoming First-Year Students

August 31, 2021
By: Nancy Sheehan

Abbigail Poplawski ‘23 understands how challenging the transition from high school to college can be so when a call went out for Peer Mentors to assist incoming first-year students she applied right away.


“As the eldest child in my family, I was the first of my siblings to go to college,” she says. Also, her father went right into the Army from high school and her mother went to college later in life, so didn’t go through the high-school-to-college transition experience. “There was really no one to guide me through that,” Poplawski says. “Having a mentor would have made the transition much easier and would have given me somebody to turn to when I needed it most.”


This summer, Poplawski became one of 21 Peer Mentors who assisted with Lancer Learning, a multidisciplinary three-credit summer course that helps incoming first-year students understand what the expectations are inside a college classroom and strengthens writing, tech, and other skills they’ll need to succeed. The course allows students to begin earning college credit while helping them acclimate to academic life.


Lancer Learning ran during Summer Session II, from July 12 to August 27. The peer-mentor concept developed after the first Lancer Learning program was offered last summer. Feedback from that first cohort indicated that participants thought it would be helpful to connect with current students.


“They told us they wanted to hear from current students about their experiences, such as how they transitioned into college and what their daily life was like,” says Colleen Sullivan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, who teaches the Lancer Learning course. “They wanted to be able to ask them questions. They had been working with staff and professors and that was helpful, but it was just that, with current students, they thought they would feel more connected.”

The Lancer Learning and the peer mentoring concepts dovetail with Sullivan’s area of academic research. Her doctoral degree is in applied developmental psychology and she works specifically with the transition periods people experience throughout life. “I’m very familiar with the importance of peer-to-peer learning and it’s always been a passion of mine to incorporate peer mentoring at some level. So, with the first-year student opportunities and Lancer Learning, it was two separate things coming together nicely.”

Sullivan worked with Tammy Tebo, M.Ed., Assistant Dean/Academic Success Center, to develop an application for Peer Mentors that was sent out in the spring semester to all students on campus. They were hoping to hear back from students with at least a 3.2 GPA and from a variety of different majors. “We were looking for people who were interested in getting leadership experience, or were already leaders on campus,” Sullivan says.

More than 40 students applied. The vetting process was lengthy and involved providing detailed answers to multiple questions. Sullivan combed through all the information, then offered the position to 25 students, 21 of whom were able to accept the offer.

The Peer Mentors are not paid an hourly wage, but they are able to earn free credits. To participate in the program, they had to agree to take two courses during the summer, one in each of the two summer sessions. “President Maloney signed off on the classes being completely free for the students, so they get six credits total at the end of the summer, as long as they pass the class,” Sullivan says.

The mentors-in-training take two three-credit classes on special topics in psychology, one with a focus on peer mentoring and the other covering leadership and mentoring. “Often we see peer mentors getting training for one or two days or maybe a week just to gain a little background knowledge,” she says. But Sullivan thought it would be more valuable for the Peer Mentors to receive more rigorous preparation. “We are using a textbook, empirical research articles, and they are really getting into the research side of it and why it’s important. They are also developing an understanding of the importance of leadership,” she says.

Statistics show that Lancer Learning has been successful in its primary goal of positioning incoming first-year students for academic success, especially in the critical area of student retention. Among those who went through the course last year, 93.41 percent registered for the spring semester, according to Tebo. Among first-year students who did not participate in Lancer Learning that number was 79.56 percent.

Poplawski knows from her own experience that emotional support is as important as academic support in making a successful transition to college. “Going from high school to college is always a little scary, and these incoming first-year students have gone through so much over the past two school years because of COVID-19,” she says. “I can’t imagine what these students have been through to get to where they are today, so I want to help them feel welcomed on campus and guide them through their first year by showing them that, no matter what, they have somebody on their side.”


In this photo: Abbi Poplawski


Leave a Comment

See for yourself what #woolife is all about.

The best way to learn about Worcester State University is to tour our beautiful campus. Be sure to let your student tour guide know your interests so they can personalize your tour.

See the tour schedule