We are happy to welcome guest writer, Dr. Jenna Harmon, Mentorship Research Lead at Mentor Collective.
Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) is the third-largest campus in the Indiana University system. They have a total student population of nearly 5,000 students, over a third of whom identify as first-generation college students. Lee Kahan, Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at IUSB, said that the institution is committed to helping “students acclimate to the bureaucratic processes of college and navigate the ‘hidden curriculum’ of what it takes to succeed in college.” As part of this commitment to student success, IUSB partnered with Mentor Collective to launch the Titans Mentoring Titans Program.
IUSB decided to partner with Mentor Collective, before the pandemic hit, to launch a large-scale peer mentorship program to increase new students’ sense of belonging. Upper-division students volunteered to serve as peer mentors and were trained by Mentor Collective. Peer mentors provide a personalized support system for new students, which has proved especially important with the shift to online learning. Many schools, including IUSB, found themselves wondering if new students would show up for the first day of virtual classes. The initial answer to this question has been astounding: among matriculated first-year students, students with a mentor successfully enrolled at a 12% higher rate than their peers who did not choose to work with a mentor. Summer melt rates tell a similar story: only 6% of matriculated mentored students failed to enroll, compared to 16% of their non-mentored peers.
I (JH) sat down with Lee Kahan (LK) to talk about the Mentor Collective program at IUSB. The following transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
JH: What challenges are your students facing? What made you interested in pursuing mentorship to meet those challenges and support your students?
LK: Our students are experiencing a host of problems during this challenging time. We serve a lot of first-generation college students, so acclimating them to the university is essential for us. Normally, we have an in-person new student orientation that includes a lengthy segment where small groups of students are put with a faculty member and a peer mentor so that they can be informed about college life both from the faculty perspective and student perspective. We, of course, weren’t able to do that this year. We also register students for classes at orientation so we can teach them how to navigate the registration process, but again, none of that could happen this year. So it was fortuitous that we had decided to run a Mentor Collective program because it provided us with the support that the students needed that they would normally receive during orientation. We heard from a lot of mentees that “My mentor helped me find my advisor, my mentor helped me figure out how to register for classes, my mentor helped me set up my computer account,” so the stars really aligned in the sense that Mentor Collective stepped in and provided our students with a lot of the support we couldn’t get them as easily.
I would also say that students are obviously under a great deal more stress right now and are experiencing increased levels of depression and anxiety due to the pandemic. We’ve gotten many Insight Flags that relate to these challenges, and our mentors have been absolutely essential in making new students feel that they have someone they can go to that they trust, someone they can talk to when they’re feeling lonely or disconnected. That’s always important, but it’s more important now than ever.
JH: Could you talk about the culture of mentoring at South Bend before partnering with Mentor Collective?
LK: Prior to Mentor Collective, our mentoring efforts were well-intended but not systematic. We had pockets of mentoring going on across the campus, and about five years ago, we instituted a first-year seminar in which a peer mentor was attached to each class. That’s been really successful, but at the same time, it was only one peer mentor for 25 students, so I don't think individual students are having a lot of personal contact with their peer mentor. Mentor Collective enabled us to scale up mentoring in a way we could not have done ourselves. It also provided a great deal more of the socialization mentoring. I think mentoring on this campus was largely thought of in terms of academic peer mentoring, so Mentor Collective provides students with that non-academic support that they needed.
JH: How has the culture changed or even improved through collaboration with Mentor Collective?
Mentor Collective has provided students with more structured means to communicate with one another. A dominant assumption was that mentoring is a face-to-face thing. One of the things we’ve definitely learned from this period is how important it is to emphasize to students that virtual communication, communicating in the most comfortable way for you, is totally fine. It’s been wonderful to see the number of text messages going back and forth between mentors and mentees, the number of times they’re meeting quickly for video chats. It’s easy for people like me to forget this, but when I was in college, I worked during the summer, and I took classes full time during the semester: work and school didn’t really mix, and they didn’t have to. Our students have economic challenges that I didn't really have, and the majority of them work, quite a few of them full-time. So saying that mentoring has to be face-to-face is not meeting students where they are. It’s been clear that virtual interaction just fits their busy lives better.
JH: What has the experience of partnering with Mentor Collective been like from your perspective as an administrator overseeing the program?
LK: We did a lot of research before signing a contract with MC. One of our academic affairs office’s concerns was the workload for our program campus liaisons. We met with several different universities that had MC programs in order to talk about both how it’s gone for them, and even though they all assured us that the administrative workload for a Mentor Collective program was pretty light, I’ve still been amazed at how light it is. That’s the first thing. The other thing that’s amazing to me is how flexible Mentor Collective is. We were challenged in getting our students to register for classes, so we set up some mass advising sessions on Zoom. I asked if Mentor Collective could help us get mentees to enroll in one of these sessions, and immediately we put together a plan to do just that. Mentor Collective has increased the speed with which things get done.
The other thing I’d say is that we could never on our own have done the sophisticated matching that Mentor Collective does. We would never have anticipated the criteria that students use to choose a mentor; it came out very differently from what we would have anticipated. To me, that is the incredible workload that was taken off our plates, and that always would have remained aspirational for us and never a reality without Mentor Collective’s help.
JH: I wanted to talk about some of these enrollment figures we had come out of the fall. Titans Mentoring Titans launched in April of this year, with 40% of students invited signed up and were matched with a peer mentor. There have been impressive results already. Among matriculated students, mentored Titans enrolled at a rate of 91%, compared to non-mentored Titans at 79%. How are you personally seeing these benefits among students?
LK: As the national media has been covering ad nauseum, universities have been challenged to maintain enrollment during this period. A 10% decrease in summer melt among the mentee population is just huge for our campus. Of course, the second challenge is keeping students in school when many of them are having to take classes in an instructional mode that isn’t ideal. We certainly have heard from our students that they would prefer to be in in-person classes, but our mentees have withdrawn at a 2% lower rate than non-mentees, so mentees are staying in their classes. That is incredibly heartening.
We hear from the mentees that their mentors are a big reason why they feel like they belong on this campus, and because of their mentors, they’re willing to weather the pandemic to be a part of it. While we didn’t look into this for this fall, I also bet that we have had less attrition among the mentor population than we have had with juniors and even seniors who are not mentors. The oft-forgotten population, when we talk about retention, is the murky middle. We have a lot of juniors who are serving as mentors. I think this experience has made them more deeply connected to the campus. It gives them a mission, and any time they think about dropping out, I certainly hope they are thinking about their mentee.
JH: Is your Mentor Collective program something you’re talking about with prospective students?
LK: Absolutely. Admissions was just thrilled when we started this program; they are currently touting it to prospective students. Last year we were a little late to the game in getting the program started, as we didn’t launch until May. This academic year, we’ll be prepared to hit the ground running much earlier, likely March, so that the time between confirmation and when they get a mentor will be much briefer, which I think is going to make a big difference. So we’re excited about that!