For students in the APIDA community — Asian American, Pacific Islander and Desi American — the Asian Pacific American Student Services’ PEER (Positive Experiences, Enriching Relationships) mentoring program has been key in helping them transition to college and find community on campus.
Bobby Vuoong, a junior PEER mentor and former mentee, found his first community on campus through the program.
“PEER has given me so much,” he said. “My mentor was not only a great connector that directed me to several useful resources and communities on campus like the APAA Scholarship and the APAA Young Alumni Council but also a great friend to me with whom I still keep close contact.”
PEER was formed out of acknowledgment that an overwhelming number of Asian American, Pacific Islander and Desi American students at USC were struggling with their mental health and well-being. Within the APIDA community, mental health is a huge stigma that often makes it challenging for APIDA students to seek support or know how to navigate asking for help. At its core, the PEER program centers on the importance and practice of building healthy relationships in an effort to teach mentees how to ask for help.
“I originally applied to be a mentee because I wanted someone with the same major as me, cognitive science, to help with choosing classes and get ideas for my potential career path,” said Alyssa Kam, a former mentee. “But it was really so much more than that. My mentor helped me immerse myself in the APIDA community on campus, which allowed me to connect with people who have similar experiences as Asian Americans.”
Kam now mentors others through the program.
Student mentoring program grows by leaps and bounds during the pandemic
Traditionally, the PEER program caters to first-year students — including transfers and spring-admitted students — who participate as mentees. Continuing students are recruited as mentors. This year is unique, however, because the sophomore class has not yet had an in-person experience on campus. Asian Pacific American Student Services, or APASS, opened PEER mentee applications to both first- and second-year students so they have the opportunity to engage and connect with a mentor as they transition from an online experience to an in-person one.
During remote instruction, APASS facilitated an entirely virtual PEER program and saw the largest cohort yet: 200 students, including mentors and mentees, participated.
“This really demonstrated to us that the need for connection, engagement and a sense of belonging — especially during a time of crisis in a pandemic — was incredibly desired among the APIDA community,” said Bao Nhia Moua, APASS’s center supervisor.
Being part of the PEER program has been such an exciting, enlightening and powerful experience and has truly enhanced my college experience.
This year, the numbers fall at just under 100, showing that the interest to engage and seek support is still present.
Throughout the school year, PEER hosts social events and community workshops. These are opportunities for mentors and mentees to connect, attend events together and learn about significant contemporary issues, topics, ideas and opportunities that benefit the APIDA community.
Taylor Kamemoto, the PEER program assistant, said that her mentee experience during her freshman year “helped me immensely to navigate the new, overwhelming aspects of adjusting to college life.”
“My mentor pointed me to campus resources, offered advice and pushed me to prioritize my well-being. She inspired me to become a mentor,” Kamemoto said.
She now helps to plan events, cover logistics and organize the matching process for mentors and mentees. “Being part of the PEER program has been such an exciting, enlightening and powerful experience and has truly enhanced my college experience.”
Building a true sense of community on campus
Recently, PEER mentors completed training with USC Student Health’s Counseling and Mental Health program, which included crisis intervention training. The training helped mentors learn how to look, listen and link mentees to resources and support, specifically when it comes to mental health and well-being.
“As a mentor, the training sessions I attended helped give me tools on inclusivity and anti-racism, as well as how to be a responsive, supportive friend to my mentees,” Kam said. “This year, I have a new mentee who is super sweet, and I am super excited to connect with her and pass along the advice I received while at USC.”
Vuoong agrees, noting that he was “able to learn about the many mental health resources and support groups on campus, and I’m confident that I am able to support my mentees when they need it or direct them to resources on campus. I’m excited about all the fun activities and programming that PEER has planned for the remainder of the semester.”
PEER also hosts Mentor Supervisions, a seminar-style workshop in which they provide resources, tools, knowledge and peer-to-peer support for mentors.
“What’s so special about the APASS family and the PEER program is the sense of community and connection you feel with everyone,” Kamemoto said. “From academics to mental health to social justice topics, I always felt pushed to grow and learn within the PEER program but also outside of it with my mentor or mentees.”
PEER program applications for fall 2021 are closed; students interested in participating will have the opportunity to apply for the spring semester. Learn more about the program and other resources APASS offers at its website.