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Division of Student Affairs

Mentor program celebrates 30-years of fostering student success

Department: Office of Multicultural Student Services

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Twenty-three years ago Christiaan Brown first stepped foot on the Washington State University Pullman campus as a freshman. He remembers well that uneasy feeling of being the first in his family to go to college and not feeling confident about his preparation for the academic rigors of higher education.

Reflecting back on those days, the executive vice president and director of Northwest operations for Edelman, a well-known public relations firm, said it was a call by a mentor in Multicultural Student Services that helped put his mind at ease and welcomed him to the community.

Thousands of former students have similar stories to tell spanning the 30-year existence of the Multicultural Student Mentor Program. On Saturday, March 24, many of them returned to campus to celebrate the storied program’s special anniversary.

Modest beginnings

Thirty years is a long time for a university program to exist—especially one with such modest beginnings. J. Manuel Acevedo, director of Multicultural Student Services, worked in the Chicano/Latino Student Center as a retention counselor when asked to provide leadership for the fledgling program. WSU student recruiter Aaron Haskins hatched the idea of creating a mentoring program three years earlier. In 1988, WSU enrolled 204 multicultural freshmen and the mentor program had no more than six students serving as mentors. Fast forward to the fall of 2017 and 62 mentors are now helping 1,271 freshmen successfully navigate their first year at WSU.

“We have a strong sense of gratitude to the hundreds of students who have served as mentors over the years,” said Acevedo. “They made a strong commitment to the program and made a positive difference in the lives of thousands of undergraduate students.”

Clear goals, expectations make the difference

Acevedo believes the program has grown stronger over time, in part because of its solid structure. Many similar programs at other universities have come and gone because they lack consistency, well-defined goals and expectations, and the ability to adapt to the changing needs of students. “Mentoring is a simple concept,” he said. “But it is very difficult to successfully put it into practice.”

The mentors form a tight bond because they spend a lot of time together training and honing their skills. Acevedo said they have to become familiar with 27 different services the program can provide students. Virginia Tavera-Delgado, MSS assistant director and manager of the program, said just landing a mentor position is very competitive with 100 students applying for 60 spots in the spring semester UNIV 497 Peer Leadership course. Of those successfully completing the course, only 20-30 of them will become mentors the following semester.

Students making the cut demonstrate such qualities as being caring, able to relate to others, communicate well, listen and are self-driven. In the fall, the mentors are required to participate in a retreat, weekly meetings, and another letter-graded class. In return, Acevedo said they earn an annual scholarship, learn valuable skills that will help them in their own classes and in their careers, and just as importantly, make a positive difference in the lives of students.

Tavera-Delgado attributes much of the program’s success to the outstanding work of the mentors. She believes it is important that when they engage a new student in conversation, that they are prepared to address any challenges their mentee may be experiencing whether it be homesickness, academic issues, relationship problems, or depression. It is impossible for MSS to have expertise in so many areas, so Tavera-Delgado calls upon others to assist.

“I am proud of the fact that we have a strong network of partners across campus who are willing to meet with our mentors and help prepare them,” she said.  “It is certainly an honor to be part of this program.”

Making a good first impression

Senior Shyradynne Pascual is currently mentoring 25 students in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Center and said there is nothing better than meeting one-on-one with mentees for coffee and learning more about them. “My most rewarding moments as a mentor are when mentees randomly text me or call me for help,” he said. “That's when I know that my outreach has been impactful enough for them to trust me as a friend and not just a mentor.”

Mentor Antonio Cardenas, a senior majoring in biology, believes one of the most important things for all mentors is making a good first impression when they contact students. “If the first impression isn’t good, they will most likely not be interested and miss-out on opportunities that can help them transition to the university and grow into a well-rounded scholar,” he said.

The impact the mentors are having on students is certain. After each encounter with a student, mentors input their notes from the discussion into an online file allowing others to offer input on interventions when appropriate. Acevedo and Tavera-Delgado meticulously gather feedback from the mentors and track university statistics on academic performance and retention rates.  “The numbers consistently show that first-year students who actively engage with their mentors have higher GPAs, lower deficiency rates, and are more likely to return to WSU the following year,” Acevedo said.

New perspectives, new skills

The mentors are quick to point out that their mentees are not the only ones benefitting from the program. As a mentor in the African American Student Center, Basheera Agyman said the experience changed her in ways she never expected.  “I have learned many new perspectives of the world from my interactions with mentees, developed new leadership skills, and have become more culturally competent,” she said.

Brown said the program’s longevity is a credit to the leadership of MSS over the years and the recognition by everyone involved of the positive difference it makes in the lives of students. “Not only does it contribute to greater retention and graduation rates for diverse students, I’m confident the benefits are felt well beyond Pullman and throughout the communities where our graduates are now serving as professionals.”

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