Peer-to-Peer Mentoring Advances Success for First Generation College Students

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Community Commons

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Written by Jessica Wong and Keely Byerley, Portland State University | Investments in early childhood development have high returns economically and improve health outcomes throughout the lifespan. However, investing in other periods of life, such as the transition between K-12 education and higher education, also make a big difference. Obtaining a college degree plays a role in determining career paths that are available, which in turn, affects level of income. Income, coupled with level of educational attainment, dictates many aspects of life, including: housing quality and stability, food security, healthcare access, and transportation—all factors that can contribute to disparities in health and well-being. Higher educational achievement correlates with lower rates of chronic diseases, improved overall health, lower smoking rates, and lower rates of disability.

These health disparities often continue, and deepen, from generation to generation. For many, college may not be an expectation, or a perceived option, and by their teen years some students may need to provide financial support for their families. This presents a challenge to pursuing higher education. College can be a costly endeavor, both the price incurred through tuition and various fees, and also the opportunity cost. Supporting students, especially first-generation college students, during this period can help address health inequities by empowering students to break cycles of educational and opportunity gaps.

From the number of essays, forms, application, and interviews needed to apply and enroll in higher education, college can be overwhelming. When you add in potential language barriers, steep tuition costs, high levels of stress, and the unfamiliar territory of being a first-generation college student, just getting to college can seem like an insurmountable obstacle—but it doesn’t have to be.

Through investments, like peer-to-peer mentoring programs, the opportunities that are available to young adults can be expanded. Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college readiness mentoring program, assists traditionally underrepresented or disadvantaged students, such as those from low income families, minority groups, and first generation students to ensure success in higher education. The program is offered in 47 states, and in more than 15 countries. According to AVID data, participating students are more prepared, qualified, and engaged in post-secondary education, with a 90-percent acceptance rate for students who apply for four-year colleges. These students also boast higher college enrollment, continuation, and graduation rates.

Keely’s AVID Perspective

Joining the AVID program in 2013 was the beginning to so much more than just a college preparedness class for me. A room full of students who I had always known to just be peers, soon turned into a room of individuals that I could trust, confide in, and relate to. Eventually this group became my AVID family.

Though I have seen through my experience with AVID that AVID students desire to achieve and succeed through higher education, their specific needs differ. Some students do not challenge themselves to reach their academic potential, such as through taking advanced placement classes. Some have little to no after high school plans because of lack of familial support or encouragement. Others have parents at home who have completed their degrees, but do not provide the same level of support, love, or guidance that peer-to-peer mentoring gives. AVID provides the skill-building and emotional support such students need to reach their higher education goals. Prior to entering college, students who join AVID between sixth to twelfth grade have the opportunity to visit college campuses, receive help on college scholarships and application essays and, most importantly, collaborate with their peers and mentors on course materials. AVID also offers help from mentors, or “tutors” who observe and aid each collaborative work session called, “tutorials.”

In 2013 when I joined AVID, we had two tutors: both AVID graduates from our school district who were either in college or were recent graduates. I developed a very close relationship with one of my tutors who was particularly helpful in essay editing, and related to the hardships I faced on a personal level. This made our bond stronger, and I felt great relief in finding an adult from whom I could get academic assistance and would lend a listening ear.

Even though I admired and was grateful for my tutors, I never imagined myself in their positions. After all, I was a student who had relatively no structure in my life until AVID helped me to put together a plan, a goal and eventually a future. Shortly after I finished my freshman year of college, I began preparing myself for my transfer to Portland State University, which meant I would need to find a job that would work with my school schedule. It seemed almost too easy when I was offered a tutor position by my former AVID tutor at my old school district that afforded me 19 hours per week, accommodating pay, a consistent schedule, and cherished memories.

When I met one of my first students, Karla Ochoa, as an 8th grader she was lugging around a copy of “War and Peace” which she read for pleasure. I saw so much in her immediately. Now, as a highly driven freshman who is still part of the AVID program, Karla has expressed how peer-to-peer mentoring supports her educational goals and challenges her to continue improving. According to Karla, she has not only learned technical skills though AVID, but she has also improved her social, teamwork, and communication skills. “I’ve learned how to work with people that I don’t necessarily [always] agree with and I’ve learned how to work with them and be more flexible,” says Karla about the diverse group of students AVID brings together.

Being on the other side of the AVID team has been surreal. I know what it is like to be one of these students: to procrastinate, to gossip, to want to just be done with school already. But tutoring for middle and high schoolers opened my eyes to so much more. Some of these students in AVID have it all figured out: a college to attend, a major to pursue, a plan to get away from their family and hometown and to start all over. Through the eyes of a tutor, I have been able to see so many new perspectives and become close to so many with stories like and different from mine.


Among a wide-range of benefits, obtaining a college degree can lead to living a healthier life. Higher educational achievement correlates with lower rates of chronic diseases, improved overall health, lower smoking rates, and lower rates of disability. Investing early, and often in the educational outcomes of students across the country has proven to reduce health disparities across the board. Programs like AVID, and other peer-to-peer mentoring programs, connect hopeful students with the resources and relationships necessary to help achieve success in higher education. To find an AVID program near you, visit


Keely Byerley

Jessica Wong

 Keely Byerly and Jessica Wong are undergraduate students in Public Health Education at Portland State University and Community Commons Interns (2018-2019).

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