The Power of an Ally
Mentors provide another resource for student success
by Melissa Stocum, academic skills specialist for the Academic Mentoring Program. Photos by Jennifer A. Cline.
For a first-year student, stepping onto our beautiful campus and beginning college classes can be overwhelming. For a returning student, an unsuccessful first semester can add a lot of pressure, especially if the student is not certain how to avoid making the same mistakes.
Joshua I. Bobenrieth, a May graduate in electronics and computer engineering technology, was one of those first-year students.
"I was having a hard time adjusting to college life, being a nontraditional student," he said. "After a few weeks, I was stressed and needed help, so I asked my instructor and was directed to the mentor program."
Academic mentors are staff and faculty members who volunteer to provide help to any student who needs it. Academic mentors are not tutors and not counselors; the closest comparison would be that mentors are like academic coaches who listen and guide the students to a victorious semester.
Bobenrieth was paired with Karen E. Wright, a graduation assistant in the Registrar's Office. On meeting Bobenrieth, Wright noticed he was tense and shy.
"That first week, I told him I wanted him to go to the Fitness Center, since his roommate had invited him, or to join a club. The following week, he told me he went to the Fitness Center and joined the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) student chapter," Wright said.
"Katie was there to give me moral support when I was struggling with self-doubt."
As Bobenrieth shared with Wright project designs, she came to know how intelligent he is and helped him to navigate common classroom problems.
"After meeting with him almost every week for the last two years, he has slowly gained confidence in himself," Wright said, noting that he is comfortable talking in front of his classes, is very involved in IEEE, spends free time running role-play or console games with friends, and plans to continue his education at Penn State, majoring in aerospace engineering.
"I could not have been handed someone better," Bobenrieth said of Wright. "She has, without a doubt, guided me on my path toward college success. She talks to me weekly on how I'm doing, and if I'm in need of help, she points me in the right direction."
After mentoring together successfully for several semesters, Wright had a heartbreaking visit from Bobenrieth. He told her he would not be returning to Penn College in Fall 2013 for financial reasons.
"At this point, he had already withdrawn from his fall classes and canceled his room with Residence Life," Wright explained. "He said he would do his best to return for the Spring 2014 semester, but from knowing him as well as I do, I knew if he left Penn College he would never return."
She had no idea what help was available, but her concern for Bobenrieth's educational future drove her to reach out to several people on campus. She started with Dennis L. Correll, associate dean for admissions and financial aid, who found money for Bobenrieth and referred her to Robb Dietrich, executive director of the Penn College Foundation, in hopes that with Bobenrieth's high grades, the foundation could also help.
"This was not in my comfort zone," Wright said. "Robb found time to meet with me immediately. By that evening, Joshua was contacted by Candy S. Baran (director of financial aid) and told scholarships were awarded to keep him in school. With a lot of extra help from the dean, registrar, housing and a few others, he was rescheduled for his fall classes. This was Penn College at its best – helping a student in need of help and giving him a break in life, which would not have happened anywhere else."
Support for individual needs
The true nature of academic mentoring can be hard to describe in detail because it is designed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of each student. Many students request a mentor's help with time management, organization and adjusting to classroom expectations, but for every student who asks for help managing his or her time, there is another student who excels at time management but has a different problem to address.
Applied human services student Stacey L. French met with her mentor, Katie L. Mackey, after experiencing a rocky semester.
"Katie has helped me be successful in so many ways. She has helped me face many fears that I have had as a student," French said. "Being on academic probation is very stressful, and Katie was there that first semester to give me moral support when I was struggling with self-doubt. She also told me to take it one day at a time and just to try my best.
"I went from being on academic probation to being on the Dean's List both the fall semester of 2012 and the spring semester of 2013. I believe that if I didn't have my mentor, I would have given up and not finished the first semester back."
Although not all mentoring relationships continue quite as long as French and Mackey's, their example is a testament to how helpful a successful pairing can be.
"I never really thought about getting a mentor," said Jaclyn M. Cardini, a surgical technology student. "I didn't think I needed one. Then I got into my major, and everything got 10 times harder, so I decided that it was time to step up and ask for help.
"It was the best choice I ever made, and I will never regret it. I have learned so much that has helped me go from getting C's and B's to getting B's and A's. Now I am more motivated than ever to get all A's my last semester here, and it is all thanks to my mentor."
How mentoring came about
Several years ago, when the Academic Success Center was known as Academic Support Services, only students who were eligible for academic help through state-funded ACT 101 or TRIO grants were able to receive assistance from staff or peer mentors (along with tutoring and other specialized services). In 2010, when Penn College no longer held those grants, Academic Support staff members had to make some big decisions about how the department would change and grow. In addition to adding by-appointment tutoring to the line-up of services offered to all Penn College students, Academic Mentoring was added.
I had been a part of the department when it had the ACT 101 grant, then briefly worked for one of the college's academic schools, and returned in Spring 2011 as the academic skills specialist for the Academic Mentoring Program. I had the unique opportunity to help design the program from the start.
The Academic Success Center staff was confident that academic mentoring was a powerful resource for students on campus, but we were unsure about how students would perceive the service. Any doubts about the students' response to the program were removed when several students filled out the Mentoring Request Form on the portal (the college's internal website) even before the announcement was made regarding the new mentoring program. Several students who had been searching for help on the Academic Success Center portal page found it on their own and submitted requests within the first few hours it went live.
The first couple of semesters, all academic mentoring was handled within the department by the mentoring specialist and other Academic Success Center staff members. It soon became apparent that the demand for mentoring far exceeded the availability and capacity of the center's staff. When the call for academic mentors went out to the college community, many faculty and staff, whether they serve the college in positions with little direct student contact or have contact with students every day, volunteered their time to help serve our students. Each semester, more and more people have volunteered, and we currently have over 40 active mentors – and we could always use more.
Mackey, coordinator of off-campus living and commuter services, volunteered as a mentor because she was aware from a very young age that in order to feel fulfilled in her work, she needed to know she was helping someone.
"Therefore, serving as a mentor was a no-brainer for me," she said. "As an alumna of Penn College, I can also remember many informal mentors that helped me through my journey, and this was a way to pay it forward."
Penn Pals help, too!
Penn College students have a way to give back to the college while they are still attending classes. Part of our evolving Mentoring Services includes the Penn Pal program, through which experienced students volunteer to be paired with incoming students to help alleviate initial fears, answer questions and generally guide them through the often-stressful milestones of the first year. The Penn Pal program was an idea proposed by Penn College student Ryan M. Enders, '13, to find a way to help first-year students feel that they are an important part of the college. The program began in Spring 2012, and we are about to seek volunteers for our third set of Penn Pals. I have been consistently impressed with the enthusiasm that our student volunteers bring to the program each year.
While mentoring takes place all across our campus, both formally and informally, the Academic Mentoring Program provides an outlet for students to request the help of a mentor if they need one, because not every student stumbles across the right person right when they need help.
Working with students one-on-one is one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done. I am constantly hearing from our mentors and mentees what a difference the experience has made in their lives.
"I never imagined that the experience would be this rewarding for me," said Mackey of her time as a mentor. "Stacey and I have a very ˜give-and-take' relationship, in that she has helped me learn and grow just as much as I have helped her."
I am proud of all of the hard work of our mentors and our Penn Pals. I feel that Penn College offers more academically supportive resources and tools for students than the average college, and it is within that supportive framework that mentoring exists. Our mentors are willing to take time out of each week to focus on an individual student's success, and I know that our participating students really appreciate the support. ■