Thoughts on Education – 04/28/2012 – Mentoring college students

I went up to campus yesterday on my day off to a meeting centered around a new push to mentor our students.  I have been on our college’s retention committee for two years now, and we are starting to see some of our ideas floating up through the bureaucracy of the college and becoming an actual part of what we do.  Some of the changes so far have been with regard to easing registration, requiring students to visit their instructors to get drop slips signed, introducing a small set of students to a “how to do college” class, and so forth.  The faculty side of things has largely been left out of the changes so far, but one of the things that I have been pushing for is starting to come into existence.  I believe that students should have actual faculty advisors that they talk to, not for setting up schedules, but for more general college advice and help making it through the college process.  Thus, we now have the beginning of a mentoring program.  It will be slowly launched in a pilot program this fall, and the meeting yesterday was the first in a series of meetings to gain interest and see who would be willing to use their time for this.

The program itself, from what I understand, will be aimed fairly narrowly at first.  We will be advising first-time-in-college, first-semester, full-time students.  Out of our 5000 or so students, that means about 3-400 students that we will be directly mentoring in this first batch.  I fully applaud this idea.  I would love to see it expanded soon, but I know that it has to start somewhere.  As the program sits now, we will be given 5-10 of these students to mentor, with the expectation that we will try to meet with them around three times a semester, serving as a person they can talk to about college, get advice from, and use as a sounding board.  These are students who need all the help they can get, but, honestly, there’s probably not a single student on campus who could not use some set of advice.

This was echoed in this article from the Chronicle recently.  In it, community colleges are admonished to stop blaming others for the problems of students not succeeding and doing what they can internally to improve this.  I think the retention work we have been doing, and this mentoring program as a part of it, is a good step along the way toward creating better chances for success among our students.  As well, the second point from the article is also part of this.  She says that colleges, especially community colleges, need to be better at guiding students through the process.  Right now, our students, without a serious amount of advice outside of preparing schedules each semester, blunder forward until they have reached enough credits to do something with them.  For many, the idea of a degree plan, a goal outside of taking their “basics,” or even what it takes to graduate, is something that only the most academically involved and prepared students have.  A mentoring program can help focus the students in on their plans and help with general academic planning throughout their career.  If we can get them in, out, and done, we will be succeeding.  The longer they take, the more likely they are to not succeed.  As well, the less focused they are, the less likely they are to reach a satisfactory conclusion to their academic career.  Hopefully this mentoring program can get them going with that.

Programs like this are also an answer to the question of how we measure student progress.  Right now, we are in this wave of measuring, one that looks at the progress that students make academically as they proceed through college.  This article from The New York Times illustrates that, discussing the need for something that can measure progress and pointing out the different ways this is currently done.  I think an equally valid measure is what success the students have in reaching their goals, regardless of specific success in a specific course.  With a mentoring and advising program, that can be helped, as we can work with students who are often lacking in a real idea of what they want to do. This group we will be dealing with is especially unconnected to the traditional measures of success and progress, as they have no family experience to fall back on as to what they should be doing in college.  What they know is that they are supposed to go to college to get something (often undefined) and that by taking classes they will somehow get there.  I know we are not the first place to ever put in place an advising program, and I know that success with the program will depend on both instructor and student participation.  However, if we can even point half of these students in a more productive direction, then we will have success.  If they can come out with a better idea of what they need to be doing, what classes will get them there, and what they can do with the classes/degree afterwards, then we will have helped them along the way.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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