Aug. 19, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 20

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    First- and second-years receive customized support from collegiate mentors

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Stacy Young said the transition from Kenwood Academy to the University was not nearly as intimidating as she thought it would be.

    And, in part, Young said, her first year was a lot easier because of English Ph.D. student Don Shaffer. Every week for most of the past year, Young met with Shaffer, usually in Hutchinson Commons or the University Bookstore coffee shop. There, they talked about everything: classes, the College social scene, Gospel music, life in a religious African-American family.

    During Young’s first year, Shaffer helped her with her writing; he helped shape her career plans and counseled her on her social life. “He’s always trying to encourage me to be more social,” said Young.

    “It was great,” said Young of her weekly meetings with Shaffer. “It was exactly what I needed.”

    Shaffer is not a teaching assistant who took a great interest in Young or an older friend of Young’s. He is a mentor in the new Collegiate Mentoring Program, which reached the end of its inaugural year at Chicago in June.

    For the past year, Young and 81 other first- and second-year students in the College have been meeting weekly with one of 26 graduate and professional students.

    Mentoring sessions are structured and have clear expectations. Mentors meet with their mentees one hour every week, they have lunch or dinner together once a month, and they do something “fun” once a month, such as going on an outing to a museum, a movie or to hear music. But the time spent together has little requirements—mentors will proofread a paper, talk about French philosophy or help their mentees sort through financial aid paperwork.

    Elise LaRose, a College Adviser and the program’s founder and director, estimates that two-thirds of the mentoring time is spent on providing social support, while one-third is spent on academic guidance. But the overwhelming goal of the program is the support of a one-on-one relationship, she said.

    Funded by the Office of the Dean of Students, the program was conceived as a way of supporting diversity at the University. Mentors are not selected based on their race or ethnicity, but rather on their commitment to diversity, as well as their ability to nurture students both socially and intellectually, said LaRose.

    Mentors often help students adjust to a Chicago community with people from a multitude of cultures. One mentor, Political Science Ph.D. student Rovana Popoff, recalled conversing with one of her mentees, a first-year from a Southern Baptist family, about the experiences of being exposed to gay people for the first time. “I’ve been in a University environment for so long, it was hard to imagine that being around gay people was unusual,” said Popoff. “But I had to put myself back into her mindset, to understand what it was like for her.”

    LaRose said one of her chief goals in selecting a mentor is to find a person who is willing to explore another’s experience, to customize a mentorship to an individual’s needs.

    The graduate and professional students who serve as mentors seek to unlock each College student’s individual social, intellectual and creative gifts. “We want to create a relationship where students can get to know older students intellectually and developmentally,” said LaRose. “The program provides the security and comfort, where they understand it’s OK when they don’t understand, to make mistakes and to ask any question.”

    So far, the response has been tremendous, LaRose said. As interest in the program grows, LaRose is seeking to recruit more mentors for next year’s incoming first-years. Though the program is primarily aimed at supporting students in the College, the mentors themselves find the program to be enormously satisfying.

    Popoff, who is working on a dissertation on comparative racial politics, is interested in a career in teaching undergraduates. She values the unique relationship the program has enabled her to have with students. “As a teaching assistant or a preceptor, you’re grading students,” Popoff said. “You have a status relationship with a student.” But as a mentor, Popoff said, she can have an honest, supportive relationship with a student. “I can tell someone a paper is bad if I think it’s bad.”

    Popoff also sees the impact her advice and her experiences have had on her mentees. “I’m a little envious that I didn’t have a relationship like this as an undergraduate.”

    While other mentoring programs have existed in the past, the Collegiate Mentoring Program is distinct, as mentors are not volunteers, but are paid employees of the College, with funding for the program provided by the Dean of Students in the College. LaRose said the pay is not the main attraction for mentors. “But we felt that the commitment to mentoring couldn’t be a priority if it wasn’t a job,” she said.

    In addition to the Collegiate Mentoring Program, two additional mentoring programs aimed at different groups of students have been developed and receive funding from the College.

    The Asian/Asian American Mentorship Program, which is directed by Linda Choi, Director of the College Programming Office, and Colbey Harris, administrative assistant in the Dean of Students Office, was created to address the specific needs of Asian and Asian-American students, and to provide Asian and Asian-American undergraduates the opportunity to seek information and guidance from those with similar cultural/ethnic backgrounds, similar circumstances, or similar academic, professional or personal interests. The program, which pairs each undergraduate student with one mentor, currently has 60 active pairs. While the program’s mentors include faculty, graduate students and staff, it is the only program that enlists alumni to serve as mentors.

    The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual or Questioning Mentoring Program, directed by Kathy Forde, College Adviser, and John Laseman, Senior Adviser in the College, pairs interested gay, lesbian or transgendered undergraduates with a LGBTQ faculty or staff mentor. Mentors meet quarterly for lunch, dinner or coffee with the students they are mentoring.

    The LGBTQ mentoring program sponsors a quarterly gathering and various outings for all mentors and mentees participating in the program.