Lehigh University
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Mentoring keeps students from under-represented groups connected and comfortable

Leaving home to attend a college or university is an exciting prospect for young students, but it is also somewhat scary, especially for students from under-represented groups.

To make the transition go as smoothly as possible, Lehigh has a mentoring program, housed in the Joint Multicultural Program and Career Services, that helps first-year students adjust to their new surroundings. Thanks to the program, started by Jeffrey Fleisher and Ayanna Wilcher, first-year students are feeling more connected and comfortable at Lehigh.

“Mentoring programs are frequently the cornerstone of university retention programs,” says Fleisher, director of the Joint Multicultural Program. “They are successful because they provide students with a personal connection to the university, one they can call upon when they need assistance and advice,” he says.

First-year students benefit from mentors for a variety of reasons. “Some students have a hard time adjusting to a primarily white university, especially if they came from high schools that were very diverse,” Fleisher says. Other students simply face the challenges that all students face—problems with classes, social issues, and questions about their career paths. The faculty mentors are trained to help guide students to university resources that can help them with general issues, but they are also important listeners; they are people the students can talk to when they are having a difficult time.

“What’s great about the mentoring relationships is that they can be whatever the students need them to be,” Fleisher says. “The benefits to the students are many—they have had someone to help them maneuver through the university, ask questions about everyday things like where to shop, and many have simply found a friend in their mentor.”

In its first year, Lehigh’s mentoring program has been very successful. There are currently 32 faculty members and 49 students in the program, and it’s growing. The program not only helps students adjust to life at Lehigh, it gives them the opportunity to connect with and meet other university faculty and staff members they may not normally have met in their first year. “By bringing faculty members into programs that work with students outside of the classroom, we hope to foster important and lasting relationships where students will feel connected to the university and share in the complete Lehigh experience,” Fleisher says.

“So far, the program has been a huge success,” says Wilcher, Assistant Director, Career Counseling and Multicultural Programming and co-director of the program. “I believe the students have found their mentors to be helpful in assisting them in adapting them to Lehigh in their first year,” she says.

Providing advice, support, and friendship

Both Fleisher and Wilcher feel faculty members make the best mentors for first year students because they understand the university system, can provide important career advice, and serve as role models for students. Faculty mentors become part of the program after being invited to fill out an application that describes who they are, both personally and professionally. “We tend to use these applications to match them with students, who also fill out an application,” Fleisher says. “Because we aim to match students and faculty based on shared interests, not all faculty members are matched.”

Wilcher points out that the faculty mentors have benefited as well. “Depending on their research or job load, some faculty members might not get a chance to interact with under-represented students on a regular basis; being part of the program allows them to revive the student interaction they once had,” she says.

Both Wilcher and Fleisher are thrilled that 32 faculty members have chosen to participate in the program. “In addition to their current university obligations, many of them make time to attend our semester events with their mentee(s) as well as other events they plan on their own, such as bowling and salsa dancing,” Wilcher says.

The program is currently seeking additional faculty members to offer advice, support, and friendship to first year students. “We hope to expand the program, and we are currently at work to expand the range of mentors the students will connect with, including alumni and corporate mentors,” Fleisher says. “We are also hoping to train a small group of students to act as peer mentors for incoming students in future years.”

--Elizabeth Shimer


Posted on Monday, April 09, 2007

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