University's Mentor Program Helps Freshmen Navigate College Life
Feb. 9, 2017
Biochemistry junior Vandana Garg remembers how invaluable it was for her to have a mentor when she first stepped foot on the campus of The University of Texas at Dallas.
Her parents had attended college in India, but they weren’t familiar with how things work at universities in the United States. That left Garg feeling overwhelmed with the ins and outs of the college experience.
She thought she wasn’t allowed to talk to her professors. She got lost three times trying to find her way around campus. She didn’t know where to turn for tutoring help.
The Freshman Mentor Program at UT Dallas provided her with what she needed.
“My mentor was very helpful anytime I got lost in the process,” Garg said. “My mentor was my first friend.”
This year Garg has become a mentor with the program so she can pass along what she’s learned to first-year students.
In 2012, the Office of Undergraduate Education organized the program to assist recipients of the Academic Excellence Scholarship in their first semester on campus. It’s become so popular that it has been expanded to a full-year experience for any first-time-in-college freshmen.
More than 500 incoming freshman students requested a mentor last fall and 460 have been matched to a successful mentor, said Hillary Campbell, assistant director of undergraduate programs.
“The program’s growth is based on student demand. Our mentors are truly inspiring students,” she said.
Mentors are trained by campus experts on life skills to survive the academic experience, including dealing with homesickness, handling finances and learning research skills.
Mentors are matched with freshman students by academic major. They meet several times a month with up to three assigned freshman students, and participate in social events together throughout the year. Pairs who engage in 40 hours of service this semester will be honored at a special banquet and ceremony. Mentors submit monthly reports on how the freshmen are adjusting to UT Dallas socially and academically.
Participants said having a peer mentor makes it easier to ask questions, much like having a big brother or sister instead of asking your parents. Mentors have the inside scoop on what classes to take and in what order, which professors are a good match, and where to find help if you’re struggling in a particular class.
“Your mentor is there for you. They want you to do well,” Garg said. “Why did I learn all this if I wouldn’t share it with someone else?”
The program also benefits the mentors. In a recent survey, most of them said they would recommend the program to another student as a great leadership opportunity.
Mechanical engineering sophomore Michael Guerra was motivated to become a mentor out of a desire to share with younger students his life experience from serving as a nuclear mechanical engineer in the Navy.
“I noticed a disconnect with my peers who think college is like high school,” said Guerra, who is 23. “Some kids can’t do their own laundry. I’m really glad I’m able to be a mentor. I feel like I have a lot to offer.”
Guerra has given his mentee guidelines on social cues and professional behavior, and has seen him gain confidence in asking questions in the classroom as well as handling relational conflict. They’ve bonded so well that his mentee asked Guerra to sign up for a community service project together.
“He just opened up to me,” Guerra said. “I’d like to mentor several students next year. I want more.”