Aaron Rife, pictured center, is an Academic Peer Mentor (APM) who helps other students who are struggling in the classroom at Briar Cliff University.
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Aaron Rife is many things at Briar Cliff University: Student body president. Homecoming court nominee. Successful student-athlete.
One thing he’s not? Struggling in the classroom — at least not anymore.
His freshman year, however, was a different story.
“I came to play football, but wasn’t totally prepared for the commitment college requires,” Rife said. “It wasn’t that it was too hard. I just had to figure out what it takes to be a successful student.”
Students who develop positive relationships at an institution are more likely to succeed. ... At Briar Cliff, we’ve learned that these relationships are powerful.
—Jessie McCormick, director of academic success
A long way from his home in Hazelton, Idaho — 1,186 miles, to be exact — Rife found himself a bit homesick and overwhelmed with his studies during his first year at BCU. He even ended up on academic probation. That’s when he was connected with an academic peer mentor, a fellow student who helped him adjust to college life both inside and outside of the classroom.
The Academic Peer Mentoring (APM) program was in its pilot stages then. It began at Briar Cliff in the fall of 2013, and has been growing ever since. Jessie McCormick, director of academic success at BCU, launched the program to make sure support and outreach were available to struggling students.
McCormick recruited student mentors to work with their fellow students, hoping that the peer-to-peer connection would benefit everyone involved.
“Students who develop positive relationships at an institution are more likely to succeed,” McCormick said. “This applies to all relationships: staff, administrators, faculty, coaches … but especially with other students. At Briar Cliff, we’ve learned that these relationships are powerful.”
Academic peer mentors work mainly with students who are on academic probation.
They’re not technically tutors (which are specific to academic subjects); rather they focus on broader skills that are important for overall academic achievement such as note-taking, test preparation and time management.
Last semester, Briar Cliff’s academic peer mentors logged more than 200 appointments with students. In fact, the university’s freshman retention rate skyrocketed to nearly 80 percent last year — something McCormick traces directly to the APM program.
“We just can’t believe the success we’re having,” McCormick said. “Students being mentored are getting off of probation, raising their GPAs, staying in school and thriving.”
Take Rife, for example — who went from academic probation to the Dean’s List. Now, he’s a peer mentor himself.
“There’s joy in mentoring,” Rife said. “It’s a thrill when you know that you’ve helped someone — that they get it.”
That’s the type of student McCormick is after, someone who’s “been there” and with whom other struggling students can identify.
Upon seeing her program’s positive impact during college, McCormick then decided it was also time to take action to help students before college. So last fall, Briar Cliff’s APMs traveled to Sioux City’s North, East and West high schools, holding workshops with local students to prepare them for the demands of higher education.
It’s been a positive experience for both the high school students and the mentors.
“I hope to continue mentoring students for the rest of my life through my future career as a teacher and coach," Rife said.