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Undergraduate mentors lauded for assistance with first-year students

by Karen Singer - December 4, 2006

For UConn freshmen adjusting to college life, learning how to cope may be easier with suggestions made by someone who has recently survived the challenges.

That's why student mentors work with instructors teaching INTD 180 (Interdepartmental University Learning Skills), a one-credit First Year Experience course taken by about 80 percent of new arrivals.

Topics range from developing good study habits to dealing with troublesome roommates.

"A great deal has to do with getting them to know one another, reassuring them that they're not in this alone and encouraging them to take part in campus activities," says David Ouimette, director of First Year Programs.

Since 2001, two students have been chosen annually to receive an award for Outstanding First Year Experience Mentor, an honor that comes with a $500 check.

Not surprisingly, the 2005 recipients, Kate Lennard and Laura Rowley, share a common desire to assist others, and stand out, Ouimette says, for their adroitness in transcending the usual mentoring duties.

"I had a lot of friends who had difficult transitions from high school to college," says Lennard, a 20-year-old junior who signed up to become a mentor before the end of her first semester as a freshman.

One of the things Lennard did for her First Year Experience course was to devise a role-playing game to explore the issue of diversity.

In the game, students choose which characters will be among a third of their class to survive a disaster.

"I played the devil's advocate," she says, adding that her goal was to encourage the students to "understand where people come from.

"I grew up in Brooklyn, New York," she says, "in a neighborhood where there were people of every age, every ethnicity, and every background."

As a high school student in Old Lyme, where the family moved in the late 1990s, Lennard was a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

She says she also sparked some media attention for raising $16,000 for a doctor who helped her ailing sister.

An independent major, Lennard plans to become a physician's assistant - a career she hopes will enable her to "impact patients' lives in a meaningful way."

Rowley's adjustment to UConn was fraught with difficulties.

"I was undecided as a major and had roommate issues," recalls the 21-year-old senior majoring in human development and family studies.

"The mentor in my First Year Experience course helped me figure it out, and was really supportive of everyone in the class. I wanted to give back."

And so she has.

Meeting the criteria, which include maintaining a 2.5 or higher grade point average and taking an educational psychology course focusing on peer education, she became a First Year Experience mentor as a sophomore.

Rowley, who is headed to graduate school to specialize in Student Affairs, also helps teach students who are becoming mentors.

"At first I was really shy about getting in front of a class," Rowley says. But it became easier "the more I saw they were benefiting from what I was doing."

She usually begins her FYE class by asking students about their weekend.

"The idea is to create a laid-back atmosphere," she says.

"Then I give input, talking about personal experiences like time management and how in high school I never wrote anything down and never had to worry about it. And how that isn't going to work here.

"A lot of trouble comes with what classes to take and with what teachers, struggling with certain courses, not studying the way you used to in high school, how to get involved in campus activities, roommate issues, and how to cope with not getting such good grades," Rowley adds.

This semester, she is teaching her own section of a First Year Experience course.

"Although I do have a mentor, I consider her an equal partner," Rowley says.

"However, I do all of the lesson planning, grading, course website design, and grading - pretty much all of the instructor duties."

The First Year Experience program debuted in 1996, as a pilot program aimed at improving retention of first-year students, as well as easing the passage from high school to college.

"It has been highly successful," says Ouimette, the program director, citing statistics showing that the first-year student retention rate has risen from about 86 percent in the mid-1990s to 92 percent this year.

The number of First Year Experience mentors varies from semester to semester.

For fall 2006, 150 students applied and 90 were chosen, including some whose experiences as freshmen were similar to Rowley's.

"Being a freshman was hard for me," says Rowley.

"So to have people tell you, 'You made an impact on my experience' means the world to me, and makes it all worthwhile."

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