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Helping Hands: IMS Peer-to-Peer Mentorship Program

By Craig Madho and Fadl Nabbouh 

“Let’s make a mentorship program.”

The suggestion echoed across the IMS boardroom to no one in particular. There was no provocation, no moment that illustrated the need, but an understanding that this was a necessary step for students. The IMS Peer-to-Peer Mentorship program is an initiative started by us (Craig and Fadl) through the Student, Alumni, Faculty Engagement (SAFE) Committee. The need for this program didn’t come from one defining moment but is the culmination of our combined experience as both students and student leaders. As student leaders we were exposed to the breadth of issues that graduate students face, such as navigating resources at the university, tackling the effects of ‘imposter syndrome’, and acclimatizing to a school environment that is purely self-driven and no longer dictated by the rigid structure of classes and exams. What’s more, new students often fell into the vicious work cycle that traps them in their labs indefinitely, forgetting to enjoy the community of students. As students ourselves, we understood the power of having a peer support network to not only encourage you through the difficult times as graduate students, but also to remind you to have balance in your life. Thus, a mentorship program was the natural solution.

Though mentorship made sense, we were only two students in a department of 550 – we needed to figure out if others felt the same way. To validate our assumptions, we embarked on a department wide needs assessment to determine (1) if a mentorship program would be seen as valuable and (2) what do students need from a mentorship program. To our surprise, over 120 students in the department answered our survey with almost every student expressing that they would make use of a mentorship program. We also noticed that there were many similarities in the student experience regardless of whether students were in a Masters or PhD program, research or professional stream. Students struggled with the idea of ‘imposter syndrome’, they found themselves wondering about jobs beyond academia, and they wanted to know how they could get involved in the student community. Armed with the results of our needs assessment, we set off to build the program.

In creating the programming for this new initiative, we worked under one key principle: build with, not for. We prioritized building a program that students asked for, but students weren’t the only ones that had a stake in their experience. The IMS graduate coordinators are the gatekeepers of student resources – if there’s something that a graduate student needs to know to be successful, they are the ones that know how to connect students appropriately. Using the student needs we identified with the needs assessment, we worked with the graduate coordinators and leveraged their resources and experience to build the events for the first year of the IMS Mentorship Program.

We can confidently say that the first year of the IMS Mentorship Program was a success. Largely we believe this can be attributed to building the program with students and addressing their self-identified needs. The greatest marker of program success, to us, is the fact that the 2018-2019 cohort of mentors and mentees has grown, with many former mentees becoming mentors to incoming students. Talking to previous mentors and mentees, we also see that many pairs continue to meet and maintain their mentor-mentee relationship. This program is new and has lots of room for growth. It’s our utmost hope that as new students cycle through the program, they will continue to help it evolve into a nexus for students to gather and help each other adjust to graduate life.

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