By Alexia Bove
For many, beginning college can be the most dramatic transition that they have experienced by that point in their life. It brings the challenges of existing in an unfamiliar environment, interacting with new people, and working impossibly hard towards an unknown future. It’s frustrating, terrifying, and even incredibly alienating - especially if you’re a woman in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Women make up about 56% of university students in the United States, yet in the 2017-2018 school year, only 32.4% of STEM degrees were earned by women (USAFacts, 2020). Among these fields, women in engineering, computing, and physical science face the harshest odds when it comes to success. While many are able to offer explanations for the barriers facing women in these fields, a study performed in 2017 at the University of Massachusetts took a new approach, asking the question: how can a positive environment be created for women in these fields?
This study aimed to see if pairing first-year engineering students with peer mentors of the same sex would better experiences and increase retention of women in the traditionally male-dominated field. Female students were randomly assigned either a male or female peer mentor, with whom they met with in-person once a month for the entirety of their freshman year. To gauge the effect of mentoring on the women’s sense of belonging in engineering, surveys were performed with questions surrounding interactions with their classmates, and confidence in their skills. Retention was tested for by questions targeted at students’ future plans, as well as monitoring the declared major on their transcripts. At the end of the year, it was found that while both male and female mentors provided support greater than that received by the control group of women without peer mentors, students with female mentors had better major retention rates, and reported higher feelings of self-efficacy and belonging in the field (Dennehy & Dasgupta, 2017).
Although this study chose to focus on women in STEM, it reveals a lesson all students can heed, regardless of gender or field of study - find your people! The authors of this experiment concluded that besides general mechanisms of support, such as course recommendations and career advice, the shared identity of the students and their female peer mentors allowed for the increase in confidence, belonging, and motivation resulting from these relationships. Many schools, including the University of Vermont, provide formal peer mentoring programs for first year students. Many of which rely on the same idea of shared identity - providing specialized support to first year students of color, first-generation college students, and those in specific majors. Taking advantage of these services, or establishing these relationships naturally, can make a world of a difference when navigating this tumultuous transition. College is a difficult time for many people, but you don’t have to go through it alone.
Dennehy, T. C., & Dasgupta, N. (2017). Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s
positive academic experiences and retention in engineering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(23), 5964-5969. doi:10.1073/pnas.1613117114
USAFacts. (2020, October 28). How many women graduate with stem degrees? Retrieved March
28, 2021, from https://usafacts.org/articles/women-stem-degrees/