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Life sciences mentoring program fosters close community for undergrads

By

Margaret Coulombe

“Family,” is how Payal Shah, an ASU freshman, describes her experience last fall as a mentee in the School of Life Sciences mentoring program. The program began more than three years ago as an effort to engage and connect undergraduate students within the ASU community. Starting with 16 mentors and 26 mentees, the program now partners 50 mentors with more than 360 mentees in the School of Life Sciences. Created as a tool for incoming freshmen to utilize resources, mentors and mentees have both gained insight from the social skills-building experience.

“We want the School of Life Sciences to feel and function like a community,” says Carita Harrell, an academic success specialist in the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Academic Advising Office and lead for the mentoring program. “We hope that by improving communication and ties between freshman and their upper classmates we also help foster a richer, more connected student experience.”

The life sciences’ model is based on the SMART system developed by Kenneth Blanchard and Dr. Spencer Johnson, the authors of the “One Minute Manager.” SMART requires that goals that are outlined be clear, focused and realistic, and meet five key points: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Trackable. This approach, adopted by School of Life Sciences, is predicated on making goals come true and crafting the best path to accomplish this, says Harrell.

“The organized system allows the individual to identify the goals that are most important to them and then develop the best strategy to achieve those long-term goals and avoid potential roadblocks,” explains Harrell. “Goals themselves can be academic, social, or about involvement. The idea is to choose a personal goal that will work within those key areas of campus life.”

The School of Life Sciences’ mentoring program tries to emphasize the building of skills that most incoming freshmen may have not yet been exposed to. Tailored to the academic interests of the mentees themselves, the hope is that students can make a smoother transition into the college environment. The program also gives upperclassmen leadership skills a chance to shine. Each mentor oversees nine to 10 freshmen, creating a small group environment.

“By improving critical thinking skills,” Harrell says, “students gain a tangible grasp on their progress at ASU. The structure helps them develop a clearer focus for their personal development.”

Shah, a conservation biology major in the College of LIberal Arts and Sciences, says that the mentoring program offered necessities like networking, resources and career-building activities, but it also allowed her to develop close friendships with her fellow classmates. “The mentors even organized activities outside of class to actively engage the mentees on a social level.” Shah says that the older mentors proved to be excellent sources of information, and that their guidance was invaluable in those tentative first months. “Such guidance gave all of us the confidence that we needed to be successful.” 

While Shah’s ultimate goal was to achieve a 3.0 GPA her first semester, the real prize was the experience.

Mentors also receive long-term benefits from the leadership experience. “Mentors make the program successful, says Harrell. “By infusing their own personality into the program, they develop real relationships with their mentees.”

Peer mentor Michelle Nemeh agrees that long-term gains can be made by mentoring. Among the 50 mentors selected in 2011, she enrolled in BIO499 and attended leadership training once a week. Besides the friendships that she developed, she says that the highlight of the mentoring program for her came as she watched her students respond, to become more outgoing, overcome insecurities and master time management, DARS, and invest in their first semester at ASU. Nemeh says that one of the strengths of the program was that it allowed her and her fellow mentors to really utilize their communication skills and encouraged the mentees to develop better interpersonal communication skills as well.

“We hope that this program gives students resources and connections that allow them to take control and shape their futures,” says Harrell. “Ultimately, we also hope that our mentees will give back and invest in passing along the benefits of their experience to others.”

Written by Gabrielle Marshall