SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Sheppard’s Peer-to-Peer Airman Mentoring Program, aimed at developing student Airmen into future leaders, was featured as a “Best Practice” during the Air Force Community Action Information Board Jan. 24.
As its name implies, the program fosters a culture of positive influence driven and regulated by Airmen, with only oversight and occasional direction from the program managers.
“We come to learn ways to positively influence people,” said Airman Carol Russell, an F-15 avionics student and mother of two. “Then we go out and practice it among our peers, and they pick up on it. Then they practice it among their peers. As a whole, when we go to our different assignments, we get to continue this wherever we go.”
Peer-to-Peer developed from the ground up at Sheppard, focuses on developing professionalism, dignity, respect and aspects of emotional intelligence, according to Tommy Bonner, the Peer-to-Peer program manager.
“We wanted to find a way to change the culture and thought processes of Airmen,” he said.
Since the program began in June 2014, it has grown to an average participation of nearly 250 student Airmen each weekend it is held. Of those, 70 to 85 percent finish in the top 10 percent of their class, said Tony Wyatt, Sheppard’s Sexual Assault and Response Coordinator.
“We are enabling them to develop good behaviors and choices in their work, life and social environments,” Wyatt said. “When they make the right choices, their peers follow suit. They are influencers in their circles and when they set the standard, it affects those around them.”
For some of the Airmen, the drive to participate is rooted in personal experience in overcoming hardship.
“I’ve been a victim of crime,” said Airman Richie Thammavongsa, an F-15 crew chief student. “I’ve been in a very negative place and I’ve dug myself out of it. So, I know nothing is permanent and I want to help people realize that.”
Participation is completely voluntary, and comes with some sacrifice of personal time; sessions are held every other Saturday at 7:45 a.m.
“Every morning [of Peer-to-Peer] my roommate asks me what I’m doing and I say, ‘I’ve got something I’ve gotta do. It’s important to me,’” Thammavongsa said.
“We help others because we want them to do better,” said Airman 1st Class Kevin Shrader, an aircrew egress student. “We invest in people. A lot of times, people have never had someone invest in them, and that can make all the difference.”
While the focus of the program is having the student Airmen mentor each other, a highlight for many participants is the opportunity to interact with senior leaders.
“It’s a unique situation to have senior leaders come in and interact with us,” Russell said. “We’ve been blessed that those who come in are so open to back and forth dialogue.”
The benefit goes both ways, according to 782nd Training Group Commander Col. Allen Thibeaux.
“I truly enjoy the energy,” he said. “It’s inspiring to see these young adults grow in their understanding of Airmanship, and see their appreciation reflected in their answers and questions. I come away with more Air Force energy every time I engage with them.”
“One benefit I get is a better understanding of the pulse of the base,” said Master Sgt. Aaron Drain, first sergeant for the 364th Training squadron. “If you listen to them and hear their concerns, they will tell you where attention is needed. By having that pulse, I can truly affect change within my unit and base as a whole.”
The Peer-to-Peer program is one of a number of efforts at Sheppard to leverage its role as the Air Force’s largest technical training operation to prepare Airmen not just for their job, but for the responsibilities that come with wearing the uniform.
“Sheppard is the heartbeat of Airpower, responsible for training nearly half of the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Doherty, 82nd Training Wing commander. “That gives our team a unique opportunity to instill more than phenomenal technical skills -- we have the opportunity to help our newest teammates develop in every possible way and meet their fullest potential, and this program does just that.”
“These Airmen leave Sheppard with a mental toughness, a willingness to help fellow teammates, and the people skills to succeed in every aspect of their life as they move out and defend our great Nation.”
With recognition as a best practice, the Peer-to-Peer program team is now looking at ways to benchmark the program for implementation at installations across the Air Force.