How to succeed as a freshman?
First-time college students turn to peer mentors for academic advice, personal insight
BY CHERIE VARGAS
It’s the week before finals, and sophomore Nichole Maharaj is volunteering Thursday morning as a greeter in Cal State East Bay’s Peer Mentor office, where she’s helped assemble dozens of lunch-size “stress bags” for freshmen.
Stacks of white paper bags folded neatly at the top fill cardboard boxes near the entrance to the peer mentor office.
Maharaj and her fellow peer mentors stuffed the bags with Scantron test forms, pencils, and study snacks, including granola bars, tea bags, and instant cocoa packets, designed to help freshmen make it through the pressure-filled days of cramming, all-nighters, and other preparation for upcoming final projects and exams.
Maharaj, a first-year mentor, speaks softly to her peers while focusing on the desk in front of her, but sits up quickly to address a freshman student, showing an underlying confidence that shines through each time a freshman walks through the office door in search of a stress bag.
“Becoming a peer mentor has allowed me to step out of my comfort zone,” says Maharaj, 19, a pre-nursing major. “I’m more social and more confident (now).”
The Peer Mentor Program at CSUEB was created to give students a positive freshman year experience by promoting their growth as a group and guiding them to educational resources and social outlets that fit individuals’ needs, said Valerie Machacek, director of Peer Mentor Services.
Introduced by the General Education Department in 2009, the Peer Mentor Program serves CSUEB’s freshman learning communities — clustered courses revolving around a common theme, such as music, nursing, or the environment. Participants in each learning community take courses together throughout the year, including a required general studies course.
The program emphasizes student participation, as sophomore, junior, and senior volunteers act as peer mentors, providing guidance and stability for incoming college freshmen. In collaboration with general studies instructors, peer mentors facilitate class discussions, organize study groups, and meet one-on-one with freshmen to assist them with their transition to college-level courses.
As an incoming freshman, Rodrico Labou says he “wasn’t into college” and ended up failing some of his learning community classes. Confused about what his future held, Labou changed majors and his learning cluster several times.
“I was considering dropping out of school,” he says.
After several discussions with his peer mentor, Labou identified future career goals, including his desire to work in the medical field, and laid out a plan to accomplish his ambitions, such as lining up advising sessions with counselors to discuss potential career options in the biological sciences.
“(My peer mentor) shared her own experiences with me, so I could relate,” said Labou. “I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the program.”
As a freshman, Labou’s peer mentor was also unsure of her future after college and declared multiple majors until she found one that fit. Relating her similar experiences to Labou encouraged him to take the time to sit down and really think about what he wanted to pursue in life, he says.
Impressed by how his peer mentor touched his life in his freshman year, Labou, now a sophomore, became a student mentor so he could “pay it forward” and return the favor someday to another struggling freshman.
What began as a small pilot project with 10 student mentors has grown to 38 student mentors who play multiple roles on campus, program leaders say.
“The program (started as a way to) provide incoming freshmen with role models and peer support in dealing with the challenges of the transition from high school to college life,” says Sally Murphy, director of the General Education Program.
But program leaders and peer mentors credit the program with focusing on more than academics; it also builds campus involvement by helping students transition socially into college life. Experienced peer mentors agree that connecting freshmen on a personal level with students similar in age encourages them to participate in campus activities.
“The program empowers college freshmen by helping them to familiarize themselves with the many opportunities and resources available on campus,” says Maharaj. “(It also helps) freshmen realize that there is someone on this large campus to talk to as they encounter new challenges or new personal victories.”
Although the program’s main goal is to assist in the academic and social growth of first-time freshmen, Machacek says the program also offers advancement opportunities to the peer mentors.
“There is a huge secondary focus,” she says. “The program changes the peer mentors. When they make a high level of commitment to a classroom for an academic year, their own academic work improves. And the community they build between the peer mentors is amazing.”
Like many of her fellow peer mentors, Adiel Dimarucut says the student mentoring program has better prepared her for a future career in medicine.
Dimarucut says advising younger students and occasionally facilitating lectures has improved her communication skills, which she predicts will help her when conversing with patients one day. Speaking in front of a classroom also pushed her outside her comfort zone, allowing her to triumph over a fear of public speaking.
“Although I’m not helping people medically, I’m helping students,” says Dimarucut. “The skills I’ve learned as a peer mentor will transfer into my career as a doctor.”
After students participate in the Peer Mentor Program fall quarter of their freshmen year, they are invited to apply to become a mentor the following school year. Those selected participate in a required leadership training class spring quarter to prepare for their new role.
Dedicated to being involved in the CSUEB campus community, Monse Reuda-Hernandez was eager to apply. A wide smile on her face, Reuda-Hernandez revisits the moment she decided to become a peer mentor.
“I was sitting in my general studies class my freshman year,” she says. “All it took was for my professor to make an announcement about the Peer Mentor Program. I was sold.”
The Peer Mentor Program also supports the University’s goal of encouraging students to re-enroll each year, Machacek says.
“Some students have remained on campus because of this program,” she says. “It has helped the (CSUEB) retention rate.”
Most importantly, however, for peer mentors like Maharaj, has been the opportunity the program gives her to help younger students grow, while simultaneously growing herself.
“All of (us) mentors are extremely dedicated to helping others and that passion just overflows into all aspects of our lives,” Maharaj says. “Through that, you start to develop a greater focus on not only helping your (general studies) students achieve their goals, but for you to accomplish your own as well.”