Learning communities transform student peer mentors into leaders at Iowa State

AMES, Iowa -- Mentoring fellow students in a learning community is among the most rewarding experiences Carly Cummings has had at Iowa State University. The agricultural business senior from Pleasantville is one of more than 300 students who mentor their peers in Iowa State's 84 learning communities.

Cummings will share her experiences with other peer mentors and learning community faculty and staff coordinators when she presents one of 17 sessions at the Learning Communities January Institute, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, in the Memorial Union. The institute provides a forum to exchange ideas on topics like bullying, building community, learning styles, using technology, leadership and service learning.

Barista Cafe Learning Community, 2009. Photo by Judy Eyles

When Iowa State initiated learning communities in 1995, all eyes were focused on the intended benefits for first-year students -- to improve retention, graduation rates and overall satisfaction and engagement. And, while statistics bear out significant gains in those areas, a completely unexpected benefit emerged: learning communities also transform peer mentors into leaders.

"Ultimately, what we've seen is the tremendous leadership development that's taken place with the peer mentors," said Steve Mickelson, who co-directs Iowa State's Learning Communities with Doug Gruenewald. "We've heard from many industries that they really like to see mentoring on the resume."

Mickelson said that former peer mentors are sometimes "the ones behind the table helping hire the next generation" at career fairs on campus.

It takes a village

Learning communities take the "big" out of a university. They are small groups of students who generally take one to three courses together and may live in the same residence hall. Learning communities also can introduce students to university resources, provide tutoring and/or mentoring and bring together students who share similar academic or career goals.

Savanna Studio Learning Community.

Iowa State does learning communities better than most, according to U.S. News and World Report. The magazine consistently rates Iowa State in the top 25 (top 4 percent) of the learning community programs at 600 colleges and universities. This year 4,200 students of Iowa State's 23,100 undergraduates are engaged in learning communities. In fact, 71 percent (3,225) of all first-year students participate.

"We have incredibly dedicated faculty and staff who coordinate the individual learning communities and put in extra time helping our students succeed," Gruenewald said. "They also do a tremendous job providing leadership and support to our peer mentors."

On the right path

Skunk River Navy Learning Community. Photo by Dave Gieseke.

And peer mentors are a cornerstone of the program. In their paid leadership positions, mentors' responsibilities run the gamut of student life and learning: live-in adviser, study group leader, faculty connector, events planner, activity guide, career coach and lifelong friend. Each learning community has different outcomes, so their job descriptions differ. They all receive training and a handbook that covers everything from common student issues and ethical considerations to facilitation strategies and programming.

"Over 1,000 students responding to a survey rated their peer mentor as being very helpful. Peer mentors do an incredible job interacting with students," Gruenewald said.


Cummings, who will co-present the session "Peer Mentoring for Dummies" at 1:10 p.m. in 3512 Memorial Union, said she likes being a resource and role model.

"I remember how scared I was as a freshman and how much my peer mentors meant to me. I wanted to give that to other incoming students," she said.

"The peer mentoring program has definitely set me on the right path for success after Iowa State. It has taught me how to be an effective leader and given me the courage to try anything that I set my mind to," Cummings said.