Peer Mentor Finds Fulfillment in Helping Her Fellow Students Connect With Curriculum

By William Lineberry
University College

A woman wearing a black tank top with a necklace.Katelyn Harlow’s favorite thing is to watch the metaphorical light come on in a student’s head when she is helping them through something. It’s what makes her job satisfying and what makes her believe that her peer-to-peer support position has a lasting and positive impact. 

Harlow, who works in the Focused Inquiry Learning Lounge (FILL) as a Peer Mentor, is currently in her third and final year as a Peer Mentor. And coming to the end of her tenure, there are some things she gained as a mentor that, she said, she believes could not have come from elsewhere.   

“The hands-on experience of helping students connect with the curriculum has been one of the things that I feel like I could have only got from working as a Peer Mentor,” Harlow said. “Having to master the concepts yourself and understand them from the inside out has really made me able to help other students out and help them understand it as well.”

The mission of Harlow and the rest of her colleagues in the FILL is simple: help Focused Inquiry students with their coursework, show them resources, provide feedback, offer advice and instill a sense of academic independence in students. 

When Harlow, a senior majoring in English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, started at Virginia Commonwealth University as a freshman, the transition from having a teacher in high school to a faculty member as your professor was intimidating for her. What helped her navigate this new dynamic were peer support specialists, she said. 

These students provided her a space where she could ask questions and feel a certain level of comfort to help with the transition from high-school to college. That’s where she first felt the impact of peer support and why she, ultimately, wanted to pursue it herself as a FILL Peer Mentor. 

“I really appreciated the approachable dynamic and that’s something that I wanted to pursue and what eventually led me to the FILL,” Harlow said. “I’ve always wanted to become a professor and I kind of see this as my way into that.” 

Since working in the FILL, Katelyn has helped hundreds of students over the last three years with their Focused Inquiry coursework--answering questions related to citations, the inquiry process, style and more. But there was one student who really helped Katelyn see the Peer Mentor in full effect.

“I had a student that came back three times through the process of writing the UNIV 200 paper,” Harlow said. “And each time they came in they were excited and looking forward to the appointment and ready to build off what we discussed before. They were really engaged and that was exciting to see. It’s a really cool progression.”

The FILL has shown Katelyn the importance of positive reinforcement and to always demonstrate appreciation for someone else’s time and creative energy, she said. 

“[Working as a Peer Mentor] has shown me how important it is to acknowledge the work and effort that other people do in their projects," she said. "It’s important to tell them what you like in their work rather than just providing criticism. Encouragement and motivation in general are something that I will take away from this and remember in my future opportunities.”  

[Working as a Peer Mentor] has shown me how important it is to acknowledge the work and effort that other people do in their projects. It’s important to tell them what you like in their work rather than just providing criticism.

Looking back through her time spent as a Peer Mentor, Katelyn has a lot of favorite moments but in general, she said, what she will take away is the excitement she sees students have when they start truly engaging with the curriculum of Focused Inquiry. 

“It’s been really exciting to see students come in and be eager for feedback and ready with questions,” she said. “When I started at VCU and I took my Focused Inquiry classes it showed me something I had never thought about before: what is the process of inquiry? Seeing the way that that happens for other students is really exciting. It’s been my favorite part about working in the FILL.”