Peer, Near-Peer, and Mentor Support

Most of us can think of people in our lives who supplied information, offered advice, presented a challenge, initiated a friendship, or simply expressed an interest in our development as a person. Without their intervention we might have remained unaware of a resource, neglected to consider an exciting opportunity, progressed toward a goal at a slower pace, or given up on a goal altogether.

Photo of Two DO-IT Ambassadors using sign language to talk to each other in a computer lab.

Supportive relationships with peers and adults can positively impact the transition period following high school when a student's structured environment ends and precollege support systems are no longer in place. Within social support systems, participants provide what has been defined as communication support behavior, "whereby individuals within a formal social system offer and receive information and support from one another in a one-way or reciprocal manner" (Hill, Bahniuk, Dobos, & Rouner, 1989, p. 356).

Mentor Support

The term mentor comes from Homer's Odyssey, in which a man named Mentor was assigned the task of educating the son of Odysseus. Protégé (or mentee) refers to the person who is the focus of the mentor's efforts. Mentoring has long been associated with a variety of activities including counseling, role modeling, job shadowing, advice-giving, and networking.

Young people with disabilities can be positively influenced by observing role models with similar disabilities successfully pursuing education and careers that they might otherwise have thought impossible for themselves. Mentors can help their protégés explore career options, set academic and career goals, examine different lifestyles, develop social and professional contacts, identify resources, strengthen interpersonal skills, achieve higher levels of autonomy, and develop a sense of identity and competence. Information, guidance, motivation, resources, and emotional support provided by mentors can help young people successfully transition from high school into the less structured environments of postsecondary education, employment, and community living.

Protégés report benefits of mentoring to include

  • better attitudes toward school and the future,
  • decreased likelihood of initiating drug or alcohol use,
  • greater feelings of academic competence,
  • improved academic performance, and
  • more positive relationships with friends and family (Campbell-Whatley, 2001).

Protégés are not the only ones who benefit from mentoring relationships. Adults can also find satisfaction in their helping roles. Common positive effects for mentors include

  • increased self-esteem,
  • feeling of accomplishment,
  • insights into childhood and adolescence, and
  • personal gain, such as increased patience, a sense of effectiveness, and the acquisition of new skills or knowledge (Rhodes, Grossman, and Resch, 2000).

In summary, "mentoring is a win-win situation. Young people win, adult volunteers win. It is, quite frankly, society at large that is eventually the real winner" (Saito & Blyth, 1992, p. 60).

Group Mentoring

At least in part because of a shortage of available adult mentors, group mentoring programs have emerged. Typically, in this model one mentor is assigned to a small group of young people. In group mentoring, mentors cannot provide as much individual attention to each young person as they might in the traditional one-to-one model, but positive outcomes can also be achieved as a result of participant interactions. Although, as with one-to-one mentoring, most group mentors want to develop personal relationships with protégés, they also promote positive peer interactions. Participants report that group mentoring helps them improve social skills, relationships with individuals outside of the group, and, to a lesser extent, academic performance and attitudes (Herrera, Vang, & Gale, 2002; Sipe & Roder, 1999).

Peer and Near-Peer Support

Peers can offer some of the same benefits to young people as mentors. Like mentors, peers can coach and counsel, offer information and advice, provide encouragement, act as sounding boards, function as positive role models, and promote a sense of belonging. Peers of the same age offer unique opportunities for sharing, are easier for participants to approach than adult mentors, and typically develop relationships that are longer lasting than those established with adults. While mentoring relationships are primarily one-way helping relationships, peer relationships offer a higher degree of mutual assistance, with both individuals giving and receiving support. Peers facing similar challenges related to their disabilities can share strategies to overcome disability-related barriers.

Relationships with individuals who are a year or two older than protégés, sometimes called near-peers, offer a powerful combination of the benefits of peer and mentor relationships. Near-peers and protégés can discuss issues such as whom on campus to tell about a disability, how to communicate with professors about accommodations, how to live independently, and how to make friends. In addition, near-peers can become empowered as they come to see themselves as contributors and role models.