My passion for scholarship in human development that addresses issues of social justice, especially in educational contexts emerged from my experiences in a peer-based learning community at LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC). Since then, I have sought out opportunities to collaborate with students who struggle academically to engage them in meaningful learning that empowers them as social agents. Among the many invaluable lessons I learned in this project was the role of peer mentoring.
Thus far, I have had amazing opportunities to engage in innovative peer mentoring programs, both as a mentee and as a mentor (e.g., the CUNY Pipeline at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Student Success Mentor program at LaGuardia Community College). These programs have spurred my passion for peer mentoring in higher education. My first transformative peer mentoring experience started when I was invited to participate in a faculty-student led critical learning community for community college students at LAGCC.
This faculty-student led project, the Peer Activist Learning Community (PALC) seeks to engage students as social actors in the mutually constitutive process of personal and collective transformation. This project offers students a space and tools for activist learning and development to engage in transforming educational practices. By drawing on social theories as tools with which to critically analyze and expand students’ own discourses toward a range of social issues and their own emerging life agendas.
As a new and excited member of the Futures Initiative, I have already gained an in depth indispensable understanding of peer mentoring during our past events such as our two-day rigorous Peer Mentoring training program and our recent Pedagogy of Equality workshop. Through these experiences, I have reflected on some of my most crucial components of peer mentoring.
Drawing from these rich peer-mentoring experiences, I believe my critical aspect for peer mentoring is the need to co-create a critical space for solidarity. In PALC, a typical session will start with each member bringing up an immediate concern with a practice or relationship, such as a problematic course, their struggles reconciling work and studies, or difficulties with family members. Under the guidance of the researchers, the group empathetically (i.e., non-judgmentally) embraced each member’s personal concerns while challenging them to position themselves as agents who make a difference, even if only on a small scale, in their community practices and relationships. In this context, not only resistance but also, paradoxically, passivity were taken as expressions of participants’ agentic stance.
In other words, PALC members weighed in matters openly and honestly. In this context, the development of critical solidarity with our shared emotional connections provided a space where we could learn from and influence each other. A major part of this process was to challenge one another through constructive, critical arguments about our already-exposed contradictions in our stances and discourses. In sum, co-creating a space for critical solidarity can be a long a difficult process. However, drawing from my experiences it has led to some of the most transformative breakthroughs for students’ newfound positioning toward their learning and life goals.