April 2, 2020

Peer-to-peer mentorship program emphasizes student success

Carly McMorris hopes to improve graduation rates for students on the autism spectrum
Dr. Carly McMorris aims to improve graduation rates for students on autism spectrum
Dr. Carly McMorris aims to improve graduation rates for students on autism spectrum Courtesy Carly McMorris

While post-secondary enrolment of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) continues to increase, retention and graduation rates for this population are not keeping pace. Werklund School of Education assistant professor Dr. Carly McMorris, PhD, is hoping to change this trend with a new peer-to-peer mentorship program.

The purpose of the program is to connect autistic university students with mentors in a safe and caring environment so that they can experience greater academic success as a result of improved mental health and well-being, reduced stress and a stronger connection to the university.

“Autistic students often experience executive function difficulties, such as organizing, planning, initiating and completing tasks, regulating emotions and mental health issues. As a result, many end up dropping out due to the lack of supports needed to address these challenges,” explains McMorris. “For the students who do continue in their studies, these difficulties often impede their search for much needed support, whether talking to professors for extra help, how to complete group work, or even how to access mental health support services on campus independently.”

McMorris, who helped launch a similar program at York University that resulted in a 200 per cent increase in enrolment of students with ASD, believes a peer-to-peer model is ideally suited to address the unique needs of autistic students, as it allows for the flexibility required to provide individually tailored supports by mentors who have experience navigating university life themselves.

Having a mentor means having a support person who has experienced being an undergraduate at the University of Calgary, and has the information and resources to help mentees. It’s a low-cost and effective way to help students with ASD to work on individualized goals.

McMorris is recruiting current University of Calgary students who either self-identify as autistic or have a diagnosis of ASD to take part in the program. Participants will be paired with a graduate student mentor who will help them navigate the university setting and identify and meet individualized well-being and academic goals.

“We recognize that the Covid-19 outbreak has had a significant impact on the university community; in accordance with health protocols, meetings with participants will be held online until the program launches in September.”

Participants will have the option to assist with a related research project that will examine the experiences and needs of autistic students at UCalgary. Those who choose to take part in the study will be asked to complete an online survey about their post-secondary experiences. Findings from the study will be used to inform future programs and supports offered at UCalgary.

Visit The Enhance Lab website or email enhancelab@uclagary.ca for complete details on the mentorship program.

This project is made possible through a Campus Mental Health Strategy Research Grant. The Enhance Lab gratefully acknowledges the support of Student Wellness Services, Student Accessibility Services and the Autism Awareness Club.