"I think it was just the fear in case I wasn't accepted" - Exploring peer mentoring for first year students in higher education

Keane, Laura (2021) "I think it was just the fear in case I wasn't accepted" - Exploring peer mentoring for first year students in higher education.


A large body of research spanning more than five decades has highlighted the complex and multi-faceted nature of student retention. This study aims to address the imbalance between the
predominance of system-driven and quantitative policy and research focused on numbers and
progression rates and the dearth of research into the wider social sphere of college life. Within
the Irish higher education context, there is a very limited body of qualitative research relating to
transitions to higher education and peer mentoring. This study addresses this gap in knowledge
as it provides a qualitative insight into the experiences of students participating on a peer mentoring programme during transition into higher education within and Irish Institute of
Technology. Transition into higher education has been identified as a time when students can
experience conflicting emotions and may feel vulnerable (Yorke and Longden 2004; Andrews
and Clark 2011; Cheng et al. 2015). Building new supportive social networks with peers and
forming new identities are part of social integration and transition (Leidenfrost et al. 2014;
Thomas 2012). The study explored how forming social connections supported students during
Using a qualitative case study research design, this exploratory study was carried out in two
stages. During the first stage focus groups were held. Semi-structured interviews were conducted
in the second stage to explore the themes that were developed in more depth. The data was
analysed using Braun and Clarke’s (2006; 2013) six phase approach for thematic analysis.
The urgent need to form connections with peers along with the shared identity and affiliation
among peers were prominent themes identified across both stages of the study. Participating in a
peer mentoring programme appears to have impacted positively on the transition and integration
of participants as it offered participants the opportunity to become members of social networks
In drawing on broader literatures, this study provides a theoretical framework for understanding
why membership of groups and social networks was so critical for participants during transition.
It also conveys that belonging, social identity, social networks, and social capital are intertwined
with and an essential part of student transition. The findings of this study suggest that by providing
structured opportunities to form social connection with peers, individuals can be supported to
develop their social identity and a sense of belonging through membership of social networks.
Membership of social networks offers the potential to develop social capital and access to
resources such, emotional support, encouragement and information that can be leveraged from
these connections. The findings have also highlighted the important role that peers can play in
student transition and persistence.
The findings of this study are relevant to a number of stakeholders, including HEIs, support
service practitioners and academic staff, while also contributing to the body of knowledge on
student transition and persistence. The findings of thisstudy strongly concur with the view evident
in the literature (Andrews and Clark 2011; Sanders and Higham 2012; Clark et al. 2013) of the
importance of the social domain for student transition as this study’s findings also indicate that
the social aspects have a significant contribution to offer. This study suggests that much greater
attention should be paid to student transition and how social integration takes place and advocates
strongly for developing initiatives that operate across social and academic domains. This study
promotes conceptualising transition differently; as an opportunity to support persistence and not
as a retention activity.
More recently, a nuanced distinction has been made between retention and persistence (Tinto
2017). Rather than focusing on “retaining” students, persistence focuses on supporting students
to be able to persist. This study embraces this subtle shift in focus as it aims to move towards a
student-centred and more holistic view of retention that explores how students can be supported
to persist and focuses on the developing the skills of individuals.

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