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The SPS Peer Mentorship Initiative
Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action
The SPS Peer Mentorship Initiative
Nkeiru Ubadike, SPS Chapter Deputy Treasurer, Stony Brook University, with Sara Kurdi, SPS Chapter Executive Treasurer, Stony Brook University
“I would love to continue my journey in physics and astronomy, but I have found it so hard since I don't have a support system or peers to talk with about physics and astronomy resources.” These words, from a first-generation and minority college student, pierced my heart like a dagger.
In response, our SPS chapter at Stony Brook University (SBU) channeled that anguish into action and created a peer mentorship program in fall 2021.
Targeted at students from underrepresented groups but open to all, the program kicked off with nine mentee–mentor pairs on a cold October night. The room was buzzing with conversation, and just like the presurvey data had suggested, the demographics were pleasantly balanced. Our mentee pool was 55% female, and 30% had identified as coming from a race underrepresented in physics.
The program requirements were simple: mentors and mentees were to meet monthly to discuss a given topic (for example, in March the topic was making connections in physics) and then note the meeting in a Google form. Yet for many of us it became about so much more than meeting the bare requirements. I frequently bumped into my mentee in the cafeteria, and our candid conversations warmed my day as we walked to the physics library together on bitterly windy mornings. Other pairs formed meaningful relationships too.
Daijon, a sophomore mentee who expressed an interest in research, was paired with Max, an experienced undergraduate researcher (and future Fulbright Award winner). Max encouraged Daijon to reach out to various research groups. Daijon eventually landed a research position and won a place in SBU’s Exploration in STEM program, a summer program that provides funding for student-initiated research projects.
The first-generation college student quoted at the start of the article was welcomed into the astronomy community by her peer mentor. He planned a fun and informative meetup for mentees with astronomy majors and their peer mentors, during which we played games to get to know each other and discussed astronomy course requirements.
Feeling part of a wider physics community was crucial to my persistence in physics, and I wanted to help foster that feeling in our mentees and mentors. Therefore, the kickoff wasn’t the only event that brought the peer mentoring participants together. On the weekend after spring break, we took a trip to an aviation museum, with discounted tickets thanks to an SPS Future Faces of Physics Award. The award also covered food at our closing event, where we played a game of Would You Rather and exchanged gifts and thank you cards.
In postprogram surveys, mentees reported that having a physics or astronomy mentor during their transition into the field was either “very helpful” or “extremely helpful.” Seventy-five percent of mentees reported that they enjoyed working with their mentors “a great deal.” Most mentees said their favorite thing about being a mentee was having someone who could answer their questions. Mentors mirrored this sentiment in their survey responses, with many saying they loved giving advice or seeing their mentee progress.
Following the success of the mentorship program, several participants were elected to our SPS chapter’s Executive Board, and they have expressed interest in continuing the program in the future.
If you’re thinking about creating a peer-led mentorship program, I’ll leave you with some advice. In the beginning, be sure to interview mentees and mentors so that you can gauge their needs and commitment level. Additionally, create opportunities for participants to engage in the wider mentorship community, whether it’s through field trips, game nights, or even a Discord channel. But be warned: soon you and your program participants won’t be able to walk around your department without seeing a familiar face!