Peer Mentors Use Narrative Storytelling as an Advising Tool to Facilitate Major/Career Exploration with First-Year Students

  • October 16, 2015

Mara Washburn, The City College of New York


In the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) Program, an educational opportunity program at The City College of New York, peer mentors work collaboratively with advisers to assist first-year students with major choice and career exploration. Peer mentors are academically successful students trained to work with first-year undergraduates in the first-year seminar. Mentors share their own narratives about choosing a major to model self-reflection, decision making, and help-seeking behavior. This article describes this innovative intervention and explores how mentors can support first-year students with major and career exploration.

Peer Mentors Advise First-Year Students

The literature on peer education programs suggests that upper-level students can be an important source of support, advice, and information for first-year students (Newton & Ender, 2010). A variety of models for peer programs, such as peer mentoring, peer advising, and peer leadership, share the notion that advanced students offer valuable support to first-year students as they transition from high school to college (Latino & Unite, 2012). Specifically, peers become models for positive academic behaviors, and they inform students about campus resources and co-curricular activities. Because peer mentors are close in age to first-year students, they are more approachable than professors and advisers are and therefore can be more engaging. Research investigating the impact of peer support programs indicates that peers have a positive impact on academic achievement, student adjustment, and retention (Hill & Reddy, 2007; Rodger & Tremblay, 2003).

The First-Year Seminar: An Opportunity for Peers to Assist with Major/Career Exploration

Peers are often integrated into the first-year seminar to serve as co-facilitators and role models (Latino & Unite, 2012). While the literature suggests peers are an important resource in the classroom, little literature to date addresses their specific input and role in facilitating key topics in the seminar. A targeted intervention focused on majors and career exploration is typically an important component of the first-year seminar, and this is an area that could be greatly enriched by the input of advanced peers.

Choosing a major is a key educational and developmental task for college students. Research in fact suggests this task is linked to retention research on career decision making for both first-generation college students and those who are academically underprepared and also indicates these students are more likely to experience difficulty making decisions about careers and majors (Hughes, Gibbons, & Mynatt, 2013; Tate et al., 2015). First-generation college students are also less likely to have a professional network to tap into for help and advice, making this process even more daunting (Tate et al., 2015). In addition, students who are academically underprepared for college may resist seeking help in choosing a major due to pride or lack of awareness of resources on campus (Hughes et al., 2013). The SEEK Program at City College integrates peer mentors into the first-year seminar to support the population of primarily first-generation and academically underprepared college students.

Peer Mentoring in the SEEK Program at the City College of New York

SEEK is a state-funded educational opportunity program within the City University of New York (CUNY), New York City’s public higher education system. Educational opportunity programs offer access to higher education for high-potential, low-income students who are often academically underprepared for college.  The advisers in the program are called SEEK counselors, and they provide academic advising as well as personal and career counseling for students.

Peer mentors in the City College SEEK Program are advanced students with strong grade-point averages and who are trained to work with first-year students in each component of the first-year experience. Mentors are present in the classroom during the SEEK summer program for incoming students, and they assist counselors in the first and second semesters of the first-year seminar. A key strategy used by mentors to teach and inspire students throughout the first-year seminar is narrative storytelling, which is used in a range of disciplines including nursing, teaching, and business. Narrative storytelling allows the teacher or mentor to use personal experiences to illustrate skills and information (Swap, Leonard, Shields, & Abrams, 2001). Research on mentoring using narrative storytelling suggests information conveyed through stories is more memorable and the rich context conveyed in stories allows the mentor to pass along tacit knowledge about norms and expectations (Swap et al., 2001). In the college context, this is precisely the type of information first-generation college students may not be receiving at home.

In the SEEK Program, mentors are trained to share stories about their own experiences confronting a range of academic and personal obstacles in college. Through these narratives, mentors share valuable lessons about persisting, problem solving, and seeking help to resolve academic challenges. For first-generation and underprepared students, these narratives from peers with similar backgrounds may be particularly important to persistence, because they normalize the self-doubt and displacement that many feel when starting college (Yeager & Walton, 2011). In the SEEK Program, a challenging task for many students is to identify a viable major, so mentors’ narratives on this topic are an especially relevant component of our first-year seminar curriculum.

Mentors Use Narrative Storytelling to Advise Students about Major Choice

Peer mentors assist counselors as they teach the second semester of the first-year seminar and focus on topics related to majors and careers. The goal for the second semester of the seminar is for students to explore their strengths and interests as part of the major-choice process. Peer mentors are responsible for facilitating one full session of the seminar in which they share their own narratives of major and career choice with the first-year students. By sharing their own detailed narratives about major and career choice, peer mentors provide an engaging model that inspires the first-year students to embark on the journey of reflecting on their own strengths and interests.

Mentor Training

The mentors who participate in the initiative are more senior students who have already chosen a major. They are trained to share their narratives about choosing a major through meetings in small groups with mentoring program advisers,  using reflective writing, and practicing presentations. To elicit rich narratives, mentors respond in writing to guided questions, such as:

  • What did you think you would major in before you started college? Did that idea change? If so, why?
  • Did someone help you make your decision(s)? If so, who helped and how?
  • What do you see as the connection between your major and your future career?
  • How does your major choice and your future career relate to who you are (identity) and your personal strengths?
  • How does your family feel about your major choice and your future career goal?

After mentors complete the writing assignment, they practice their narratives with the training group and receive feedback from their peers. The mentors are encouraged to include details that highlight their journey in choosing a major rather than the end result and to disclose vulnerable moments of doubt and confusion.

Narrative Storytelling in Action

Mentors work in teams of two and share their narratives with the first-year seminar classes. Mentors from different majors and with very distinct stories are paired to provide the students with diverse stories about major choice. After sharing their narratives, the mentors facilitate a discussion and answer students’ questions about the stories they heard. In the discussion, mentors encourage students to share where they are in their own process of choosing a major and discuss any concerns they have about their progress. Mentors also urge students to talk about family pressures and financial constraints that might be underlying causes of stress in the process of choosing a major.

These narratives provide an example of positive and productive career decision making that is accessible to students, and thus mentors can become role models for moving forward with major choice. By describing their thoughts, mentors demonstrate the importance of self-reflection in major and career decision making. This emphasis on self-reflection encourages first-year students to approach their own major/career choice with greater depth of analysis and reflection.

The narratives also model effective ways of confronting challenges, and moving forward with major choice in spite of confusion or academic setbacks. For example, the narratives contain many examples of mentors seeking help to manage stressors and choose appropriate majors. These stories normalize and encourage help-seeking behaviors. In their narratives, mentors often discuss the conversations they had with SEEK counselors and how these meetings helped them gain clarity about majors and careers. These kinds of stories show first-year students that their confusion is normal, and that counselors can be trusted sources of support.

Feedback from Students

As part of the evaluation for the second-semester seminar course, first-year students were asked to respond to the open-ended question, “Did you find the session led by peer mentors (session 5) to be helpful? Why or why not? Most agreed that the session was helpful. Many students said the mentors’ experiences gave students a sense of what to expect in the process of choosing a major. Students also noted that mentors answered questions and gave valuable advice about changing majors and college requirements in the sessions. Further, many first-year students said the mentors were ‘relatable’ and the narratives helped them to feel understood and less alone. Finally, some students found that the mentors gave good advice about specific majors.

After completing the sessions with first-year students, mentors also evaluated their own experience. When asked to describe what they thought first-year students gained from the session, mentors generally felt the presentations helped students to know what to expect when choosing and navigating a major. Mentors also reported that their presentations helped first-year students to understand the importance of seeking help. One mentor described her impact:

I hope the freshmen were able to get from my presentation that there is a myriad of ways to get to where you want to be. I also think they got to see how seeking support from varying avenues has worked for me, because I needed it. One thing I emphasized was the importance of finding passion in what they may pursue, study. And that passion is usually not obvious; you have to find it.

Mentors also reported that the training and the experience of presenting their narratives to first-year students had a positive impact on their own confidence. For most mentors, reflecting on their decision-making journey reinforced a sense of competence and passion for their major. One mentor said:

It allowed me to think back at deciding my major and how I switched. But there was always a constant; it showed me a process that I took for granted. Even if I would go back, I most likely [would] make the same decisions.

Future Directions for Research

While program evaluation data suggest peer mentors’ major and career narratives help first-year educational opportunity program students, formal research is needed to assess the impact on behavioral outcomes. For example, research might examine the impact of peer narratives on first-year students’ help-seeking behavior around major choice. Further, a narrative writing assignment for these students could also be used to assess the impact of peers’ narratives on first-year students’ self-awareness and decision making. Rehfuss (2009) examined undergraduate students’ career narratives before and after a career intervention, and found that the narratives written after the intervention demonstrated increased insight and clarity about career choice.. Similarly, qualitative analysis of the changes in a student’s written career narrative after meeting with peer mentors would lend insight into the impact of these narratives on first year students’ approaches to major choice.

Conclusion and Implications

Students’ positive response to the mentors’ narratives suggest mentoring through narrative storytelling can be a powerful intervention. Many colleges and universities have peer advising and mentoring programs in place; however, few utilize narrative as a formal strategy for peer support. A peer’s story brings the process of major choice to life. If peer mentors are well prepared, their narratives can be moving, inspirational, and informative for first-year students. These narratives may be particularly helpful for undeclared students who feel intimidated by the prospect of exploring options for majors and careers. Further, these stories normalize the confusion and fear that many underprepared and first-generation college students feel as they begin their first year. This validation can help first-year students to move past paralysis into a journey of exploration and reflection.


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Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267–301.

About the Author(s)

Mara Washburn, The City College of New York

Mara Washburn, Ph.D., is a SEEK counselor and assistant professor in the Department of SEEK Counseling and Student Support Services at The City College of New York. She can be reached at

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