We are happy to welcome guest writer,  Dr. Jenna Harmon,  Mentorship Research Lead at Mentor Collective.

For many of us, September marks six months since social isolation policies were put in place, asking us to put in-person connections on hold. Though many schools were optimistic about holding classes on campus this fall, outbreaks on campuses across the country demonstrate that the worst is not yet behind us.  

While spring and the early summer was devoted to strategizing just how to plan for the fall, attention among higher ed observers has increasingly turned to student connection and sense of belonging, especially as many schools are quickly returning to an online-only model. How can colleges and universities provide a satisfying version of the campus experience for students attending virtually? The answer to this question has important implications not only for student experience, but also for student retention. A recent survey of 15,000 college students revealed that students reporting low levels of connection to their fellow students also said they were less likely to re-enroll in the fall. This connection between strong student sense of belonging and higher retention is supported by a decade’s worth of academic literature on the subject (Ward, Thomas & Disch, 2010; Roger & Tremblay, 2003; Talbert, 2012). 

Recognizing the conundrum of creating connection while physically distanced is only half the battle. The real question is, what are practical, effective strategies that can be put into place to address this connection gap? Mentorship programs are increasingly being called out as a high-impact practice to address exactly this question. Peer-to-peer mentoring programs in particular are helpful not only for the mentees, but also for the mentors, as they develop crucial leadership skills and social connection. Recent academic studies also support the positive effects of mentorship on sense of belonging and retention for both mentees and mentors (Kiyama & Luca, 2014; Yomtov et al., 2017; Lane, 2018). 

Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM) understands the stakes of creating connections among its students, which is why they decided to partner with Mentor Collective this summer. With Mentor Collective, AUM will connect up to 600 incoming first-year and transfer students with current upper-level students, creating beneficial experiences for new students and upperclassmen. By beginning the program before the start of the school year, AUM and Mentor Collective are able to work together to build excitement among students about the program before they even begin classes. Students will be matched together based on their academic major, or based on shared challenges they’ve faced, such as working a job while in school, having to support one’s family financially, or having changed schools multiple times. AUM and Mentor Collective are working together to create the kinds of bonds between students that will help them succeed not only this fall, but also in the years to come.

Academic article citations

Ward, E. G., Thomas, E. E., Disch, W. B., & West Hartford, C. T. (2010). Goal attainment, retention and peer mentoring. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 14(2), 170-176.

Lane, S. R. (2018). Addressing the Stressful First Year in College: Could Peer Mentoring Be a Critical Strategy? Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025118773319

Rodger, S. & Tremblay, P. F. (2003) The Effects of a Peer Mentoring Program on Academic Success among First Year University Students. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 33(3):1-17.

Talbert, P.Y. (2012) Strategies to Increase Enrollment, Retention, and Graduation Rates. Journal of Developmental Education 36 (1), 22-36.

Kiyama, J. M., & Luca, S. G. (2014). Structured Opportunities: Exploring the Social and Academic Benefits for Peer Mentors in Retention Programs. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 15(4), 489–514. https://doi.org/10.2190/CS.15.4.b

Yomtov, D., Plunkett, S. W., Efrat, R., & Marin, A. G. (2017). Can Peer Mentors Improve First-Year Experiences of University Students? Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 19(1), 25–44. https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025115611398

Lane, S. R. (2018). Addressing the Stressful First Year in College: Could Peer Mentoring Be a Critical Strategy? Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice.