For students who are the first in their families to attend college, certain parts of the experience can be confusing, such as campus culture and terminology. However, it’s less intimidating to ask a fellow student to explain the context around words like “prelim” and “office hours,” than it is to reach out to a faculty advisor.
The goal of the CALS peer mentoring program is to create a closer connection with the new students and help them bridge gaps in academic success and psychological well-being.
“Because my parents didn’t come from an academic background, it was harder to explain what was going on here and to articulate everything that is Cornell. That was probably the hardest part,” said Melissa Montego ’23, a mentee in the Fall 2019 cohort. “The peer mentoring program reassured me as a first-generation student that I’m not alone and that I have the resources here to help me succeed.”
Developed by the CALS Office of Academic Programs, CALS Office of Undergraduate Admissions and CALS Office of Student Services, the program pairs upperclassmen with the incoming students based on majors and general demographic information. Mentors reach out to their mentees over the summer and typically connect with them in-person during orientation.
The upperclassmen also participate in a one-credit class during the fall semester, which helps them build mentoring skills, connect with fellow mentors, and learn more about other support networks available through Cornell.
This structured approach is key to building a successful and sustainable program, said Sue Merkel, the program leader and associate director of academic programs.
“Peer mentoring supports students who need it, and it also provides mentors training and interpersonal skills that will be valuable in whatever they do in the future,” Merkel said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Mentors benefit from guidance by Cornell Health, the Learning Strategies Center and members of the Intergroup Dialogue Project. Joseph Thorsrud ’20 said the trainings gave him a completely new perspective on the challenges that many first-generation students face.
“I’m hoping to remain in academia so learning about the hidden barriers that first-generation students face has made me more conscientious in my own teaching,” he said. “I’m trying to be sure that I’m not coming in with assumptions about how to support them.”
To better understand the impact of the program, Merkel worked with Neil Lewis, Jr.,’13, an assistant professor of communication who conducts research on academic achievement, and Zach Berry, a doctoral student who studies organizational behavior. They surveyed the students and will use the resulting data to help address gaps in the program, making the experience even more rewarding for future cohorts.
The first phase of assessment focuses on how participating in the program affects students’ academic success, and the second part examines their psychological well-being.
“Part of a student’s academic success is making sure they are having a good psychological experience on campus, so we’re also measuring students’ sense of belonging, how they think about Cornell as a path for achieving their long-term goals, and how they think about the difficulties they experience here,” Lewis said.
“Inevitably, things are going to get hard. We want to know if having a peer mentor to turn to changes the way students are thinking about the difficulties they’re experiencing,” Lewis said.
The first cohort supported 60 incoming freshmen. The current program has expanded to work with 50 first-year and 22 incoming transfers who are all first-generation students. A big emphasis this year is developing peer mentor-mentee relationships with physical distancing and helping the mentees to build communities.
Throughout the fall semester, they have multiple opportunities to engage with their mentors in the program — allowing the researchers to see how much participation matters for improving academic success. Results from the first cohort showed that how much the new students engaged mattered a lot. Those who engaged with the program at every opportunity throughout their first semester at CALS reaped the largest benefits. They earned GPAs that were 0.61 higher than those who didn’t attend peer mentoring events. That’s the difference between averaging B+ and B- grades.
The data also showed that female students who engaged fully with the program appeared to benefit the most, whereas gains for male students were smaller, but still substantial, marking a 0.15 GPA gain.
Lewis said this type of holistic intervention is the kind of approach that helps students succeed, and it reduces disparities in academic achievement. “Providing academic guidance as well as social support helps students to navigate the often difficult, but important, journey of collegiate life,” he said. “Having those supports to turn to can be especially helpful to students who are the first in their families to walk along this path.”
He added, “But we can’t just create programs like this and assume they are helping — we have to rigorously evaluate them to find out who they are helping, how much are they helping, and why. That is the only way we can figure out what are the best ways to support and improve the lives of our students — lives that we hope will go on to improve other lives, and the world in which we live.”
Header image: Participants in the CALS peer mentoring program spend time getting to know each other. Photo: Dave Burbank, December 2019.
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