Peer Mentors and Networks: Powerful Tools for Promoting Transfer Student Success

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

Prior to the establishment of the Chicago Linkage for Minorities in Biomedical Sciences (CLIMB)¹ at Chicago State University (CSU), few of the transfer students from the Chicago City College System (CCC) graduated from CSU with a baccalaureate degree in the sciences. But after the program's inception in 1993, the graduation rate for CLIMB transfer students increased: 56% of CLIMB transfer students who enrolled at CSU obtained a baccalaureate degree in the sciences within 4 years of transfer as compared to a 6-year graduation rate of 41% for all other CSU science students.

CLIMB is a partnership between CSU and three Chicago City Colleges: Kennedy-King College, Harold Washington College, and Olive-Harvey College. The goal of the program is to facilitate the transfer of students from these city colleges to Chicago State University and to provide transferring students with the skills they need to complete a baccalaureate degree in the sciences.

The CLIMB Begins

One of the first things CLIMB officials did upon setting up the program was to identify the academic obstacles city college students faced after transferring to CSU science programs. An advisory committee of faculty and student advisors from all four institutions met and identified three main obstacles. The committee found that students:

  • Lacked appropriate coursework for transfer to CSU in the sciences;

  • Performed poorly on CSU placement exams;

  • Lacked sufficient support and encouragement to persevere and complete a rigorous science curriculum.

Program administrators addressed these issues by implementing a number of activities between the city colleges and CSU: course and curriculum articulation (comparing courses at all institutions to see if the content material was appropriate and if the courses were transferable), improving academic advising, establishing placement test preparation workshops for transferring students, presenting career information and motivational seminars, providing financial support for students to attend professional conferences, providing opportunities for research experiences with CSU faculty, and facilitating the formation of peer and mentor support networks.

Who Are Our Students?

Among the strengths of the partnership are the common demographics and geographic proximity among all four schools. The institutions, primarily commuter campuses, are located within a five-mile radius on the south side of Chicago, and all enroll mostly African-American and Hispanic students. CSU is 84% African-American and 4% Hispanic. Kennedy-King College is 85% African-American and 4% Hispanic. Harold Washington College is 43% African-American and 18% Hispanic, and Olive-Harvey College is 90% African-American and 8% Hispanic. The majority of students are first-time college students with two-thirds working at least part-time. Women slightly out-number men, and more than 80% of students are Pell-grant eligible.

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Dr. Uri Treisman -- currently a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin -- noted that minority students in general tend to study in isolation rather than in more productive groups. This academic isolationism is even greater in minority transfer student populations. They rush to class, then rush off campus to full- or part-time jobs, or to fulfill their family responsibilities. As a result, these students rarely utilize the many resources they need to succeed in the sciences.

By facilitating the formation of peer networks between transfer students, other (non-transfer) students, and CLIMB alumni, CLIMB was able to break the tendency toward isolationism. With other CLIMB transfer students setting the example, new transfers learned the value of forming study groups, networking, and approaching faculty members for academic help and advice.

CLIMB Surveys

Evaluation is an important component of our program. CLIMB makes every effort to gather student feedback. One of our evaluation components is an open-ended questionnaire administered to CLIMB students who are about to graduate with a baccalaureate degree in the sciences. Two of the 11 questions posed are, "In retrospect, what do you see were the greatest obstacles you faced in transferring and getting your degree?" and "What were the most important ways in which the CLIMB program helped you to overcome these obstacles?"

Responses to the first question were pretty much what the advisory committee anticipated. Students identified the following obstacles: limited vision of career opportunities, poor academic preparation, underestimating their own abilities, lack of successful role models, not knowing what it takes to succeed, financial responsibilities, and dependant-children responsibilities.

The students' responses to the second question--information about career opportunities, academic and financial support, faculty mentoring, and seeing real-world science through participation in research--were mostly expected, but there was one surprise. The most important element identified by the students was an "association with a peer group of students like themselves who were successful."

Although we had many successful minority scientists come speak to CLIMB students about how they overcame obstacles, this wasn't enough: Students persisted in the belief that these scientists were innately more intelligent or privileged than themselves. It was only when we brought them together with students from similar circumstances, who had successfully negotiated the next step in their academic career path, that these transfer students found the motivation, help, and inspiration they needed.

Program Success

The success of these strategies can be seen in the program statistics. Seventy-nine percent of CLIMB students transfer to four-year institutions versus 12% overall for the Chicago City College System, which includes a total of seven schools. Moreover, CLIMB students perform roughly twice as well as all other transfer students on CSU placement exams.

The reasons for CLIMB's success are many, but one, in particular is worth noting: Transfer students thrived when we brought them together with successful peers and program alumni to form formal and informal peer networks.

¹ Supported by the National Institutes of Health, Bridges to the Baccalaureate program grant # 2 R25 GM048997-04

Michael Mimnaugh, Ph.D. is a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Chicago State University in Chicago, Illinois. He may be reached at

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