A 'Beacon of Light': Peer Mentors' Experiences in an Online Peer Mentoring Program

Streamed Session HBCU Research Equity and Inclusion

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Brief Abstract

This presentation will explore the implementation of an online peer mentoring program, eSTEM, at two historically black institutions and the impact of the program on racially and ethnically minoritized students’ engagement in and intent to persist in STEM degrees and careers.


Dr. Jillian L. Wendt serves as Associate Professor of Science Education in the Division of Education, Health, and Social Work, College of Arts & Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) in Washington, DC. In addition to researching, leading grant projects, and teaching at UDC, Dr. Wendt serves an active role in the broader education community. You will often find her volunteering for professional organizations, providing professional development opportunities, and partnering with education boards and institutions locally and nationally. Dr. Wendt’s work has been recognized through receipt of the Association of Teacher Educators Robert Stevenson Scholarship, the Scholar of Promise Award for the College of Arts and Sciences at UDC, and the Accomplishment in Research/Scholarship Award for the College of Arts and Sciences at UDC, among other accolades. Dr. Wendt’s areas of expertise and research interests include technology in education, science education, STEM education, and teacher preparation.

Extended Abstract

Introduction to the Overall Topic and Research Study

This presentation will explore the implementation of an online peer mentoring program, eSTEM, at two historically black institutions and the impact of the program on racially and ethnically minoritized students’ engagement in and intent to persist in STEM degrees and careers. The eSTEM program is a collaborative effort between two historically black institutions. The project extended a previous pilot project by expanding the development, implementation, and evaluation of an online science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) peer mentoring program specifically designed to support historically underrepresented women and racially and ethnically minoritized undergraduate and graduate students. The goal was to examine the efficacy of the eSTEM program to assist students in developing mentoring skills that are culturally responsive; self-efficacy in STEM; science identities; and to promote their intent to persist in their STEM degree and subsequent STEM careers. The overarching goal is to broaden the participation of those who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields.

Women, especially those that identify as racially and ethnically minoritized, continue to be underrepresented in STEM degree programs and career fields (NSF, 2021) despite myriad efforts to broaden participation. While some fields have shown an improvement in equitable representation, such as biology, others demonstrate a dearth in women both pursuing degrees within the field and remaining within the profession, such as engineering, for instance. There are many reasons that have been identified within the research literature, including a hostile climate, incongruence with responsibilities typically shouldered by women (e.g., child rearing), and lack of access to ‘like others’ (see Brue, 2019; Dawson et al., 2015; Fouad et al., 2016; Jensen & Deemer, 2019; Mondisa, 2018).

The study was grounded in social cognitive career theory (SCCT; Lent et al., 1994) and further informed by theories on persistence, self-efficacy, identity, and mentoring. SCCT, however, purports that interest is a key component to promoting individuals’ intent to engage in and persist in STEM degrees and careers. Individuals’ interest motivates their action, which in turn inform their subsequent successes and failures. Throughout this process, feedback is utilized that, in turn, impacts self-efficacy—the belief that an individual has about their ability and the likelihood that a specific behavior will lead to a specific outcome (Bandura, 1977)--and performance outcomes. Individuals who experience a higher level of STEM self-efficacy will be more likely to engage in and persist in STEM degrees and career paths (Fouad et al., 2016). Further, STEM self-efficacy impacts the development of individuals’ STEM identity which may further inform persistence in STEM degrees and careers. Peer mentoring is one promising method for providing support for the development of interest in STEM, STEM self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and STEM identity (see Rockinson-Szapkiw et al., 2020, 2021; Wendt et al., 2019).

In Summer 2020, undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in STEM degree programs at the participating institutions were recruited. A total of 34 students participated in the program to completion (n = 8 mentors, n = 26 mentees). All participants were assigned a role as either a peer mentor or peer mentee, completed a pre-test survey, and then engaged in a series of 8 online training modules (mentors completed mentor training and mentees completed mentee training) in Summer and Fall 2020. After completing the training, mentors were assigned 2-4 mentees in which to engage in an online mentoring relationship. The mentoring relationships, termed STEM Communities, interacted through the Spring 2021 semester. Throughout the 2020/2021 academic year, participants were also provided the opportunity to participate in a series of STEM Webinars featuring women in STEM career fields. Participants then completed a post-survey and participated in individual interviews and focus groups.

The current presentation will focus on the experiences of the peer mentors (n = 7), all of whom self-identified as African American women, from a qualitative perspective. Using a case study approach, with the peer mentors serving as the case, open ended interviews and focus groups were conducted, and data was collected and transcribed for analysis. Using a grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) data was coded using a combination of inductive and deductive coding. From the codes, themes were identified. The following research questions guided the analysis:

RQ1: How, if at all, was participation in the online peer mentee program useful in furthering students’ STEM self-efficacy?

RQ2: How, if at all, was participation in the online peer mentee program useful in furthering students’ sense of belonging in STEM?

RQ3: How, if at all, was participation in the online peer mentee program useful in furthering students’ development of a STEM identity?

RQ4: How, if at all, was participation in the online peer mentee program useful in furthering students’ intent to persist in a STEM degree program and, ultimately, their intent to pursue a STEM career pathway?

All participants indicated that their experience in the eSTEM program was valuable and an overall positive experience. In discussing their experience, several salient themes were identified: An ‘I Can Do This Approach: Confidence and Self-Efficacy; Motivation through Reciprocity; Utility of Like Others; ‘Beacons of Light’: Intersecting and Malleable Identities; Skills Development; and Acknowledgement of Challenges that Could Be Overcome.

Key Take-Aways

Conference attendees will:

  • Learn about the impetus and structure of the eSTEM program;
  • Learn about the methodology for evaluating the impact of participation in the program on peer mentors’ interest in STEM, self-efficacy in STEM, sense of belonging, STEM identity, and intent to persist in STEM;
  • Learn about the salient themes identified from analysis of peer mentors’ individual interviews and focus groups;
  • Discuss opportunities for future research and potential collaborations; and
  • Discuss the impact of the current study on efforts to broaden participation in STEM.

Plan for Interactivity

This presentation will elaborate on the salient themes identified by providing a robust discussion of participant responses, including quotes. Directions for further research, as supported by the current analyses and analyses from the previous pilot, will be shared. As part of the presentation, conference attendees will be invited to share their perspectives on the themes identified, as well as their suggestions for future implementation and study of the eSTEM program. Importantly, there will be an opportunity to suggest potential collaborations to extend the current project to other historically black institutions and minority serving institutions. Conference attendees will also be provided with the url to the project website where they can further engage with and explore the online peer mentoring training modules developed for the eSTEM program.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W. H. Freeman and Company.

Brue, K. L. (2019). Work-life balance for women in STEM leadership. Journal of Leadership Education, 18(2), 32–45.

Dawson, A. E., Bernstein, B. L., & Bekki, J. M. (2015). Providing the psychosocial benefits of mentoring to women in STEM: CareerWISE as an online solution. New Directions for Higher Education, 2015(171), 53-62.

Fouad, N., Singh, R., Cappaert, K., Chang, W., & Wan, M. (2016). Comparison of women engineers who persist in or depart from engineering. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 92, 79-93.

Jensen, L. E., & Deemer, E. D. (2019). Identity, campus climate, and burnout among undergraduate women in STEM fields. Career Development Quarterly, 67(2), 96–109.

Lent, R., Brown, S., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 45(1), 79-122.

Mondisa, J. (2018). Examining the mentoring approaches of African-American mentors. Journal of African American Studies, 22, 293-308.

National Science Foundation. (2021). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Retrieved from https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21321

Rockinson-Szapkiw, A., & Wendt, J. L. (2020). The benefits and challenges of a blended peer mentoring program for women peer mentors in STEM. International Journal on Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 10(1), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-03-2020-0011

Rockinson-Szapkiw, A., Wendt, J. L., & Stephen, J. S. (2021). The efficacy of a blended peer mentoring experience for racial and ethnic minority women in STEM pilot study: Academic, professional, and psychosocial outcomes for mentors and mentees. Journal for STEM Education Research, 4, 173-193. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41979-020-00048-6

Saffie-Robertson, M. C. (2021). It’s not you, it’s me: An exploration of mentoring experiences for women in STEM. Sex Roles, 83, 566-579.

Wendt, J. L., Rockinson-Szapkiw, A., & Conway, A. (2019). Using technology to foster peer mentoring relationships: Development of a virtual peer mentorship training model for broadening participation in STEM. In L. Winfield, Z. Wilson-Kennedy, G. Thomas, & L. Watkins (Eds.), Growing diverse STEM communities: Methodology, impact, and evidence. (pp. 255-268).