NIU President Doug Baker’s ambitious effort to offer peer or alumni mentors to all students is gaining big-time momentum.
At least three new mentoring initiatives have sprouted up this semester. Inventories are being conducted of the many existing programs. And Baker is expected to talk about NIU’s efforts to expand mentoring and internship opportunities Thursday, Feb. 20, during the 7 a.m. hour on WGN Radio and at 7 p.m. on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight.
“We have a clear vision and these are very attainable goals,” Baker said. “I’m excited because we are seeing a groundswell of support and interest from students, faculty and alumni.”
The expansions of mentoring and internship opportunities are key areas of Baker’s overarching goal of “student career success.” At his inauguration this past fall, Baker announced that NIU will strive to offer peer mentors to all university freshmen and tap into its 225,000 alumni to mentor sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Pilot alumni mentoring program
Toward that end, pilot alumni- and peer-mentoring programs have been launched in tandem this semester, with inventories being conducted of the many existing mentoring programs already offered on campus.
The effort is spearheaded by a task force led by Joe Matty, executive director of the NIU Alumni Association and associate vice president of university advancement; Eric Weldy, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management; and Laurie Elish-Piper, acting deputy provost and a professor in the Department of Literacy Education.
The pilot NIU Student-Alumni Mentoring Program is providing alumni mentors to nearly 70 students this spring. The aim is not to replace existing programs but to build upon them.
“We don’t want to change any existing programs; we just want to quantify what’s going on across campus and establish a central place for students to go if they’re seeking a mentor,” Matty said. “So ultimately we’ll be able to ensure that all NIU students have the same opportunities.”
Matty said interest in the pilot alumni-mentoring program has been high, and there are more mentors and mentees in the queue. The program primarily focuses on sophomores and juniors and is utilizing online, team, over-the-phone and one-on-one mentoring approaches. A kickoff event in January allowed alumni and students to meet in person.
“This pilot is special in the sense that it really taps into a great resource in our alumni,” Weldy said. “With a pilot project, you can work out any kinks before you enlarge the program, and we’ve already learned some things.”
Weldy added the benefits of mentoring will likely include improvements to student retention rates.
“Research shows that students are more likely to graduate when they build relationships on campus and are heavily engaged with peers and faculty and in university activities,” he said.
Pilot peer-mentoring program
The mentoring task force also has established a pilot peer-mentoring program in First-Year Composition this semester and has already completed its inventory of existing peer-mentoring efforts on campus.
Impressively, 339 students last fall mentored 2,588 of their NIU peers in various peer-mentoring programs.
The peer-mentoring pilot consists of 18 mentors who are each “embedded into” a section of First-Year Composition, a freshman requirement. Each section has about 25 students.
The mentors, who were trained earlier this month, will attend one class per week, conduct study sessions with students and be available to students for out-of-class support.
“This is a great example of the president’s ‘Huskies unleashed’ concept,” said Elish-Piper, who took the lead organizing the peer-mentoring pilot. “It’s happening fast and furious. We came up with this plan and needed money – and we quickly got funding support from the offices of the provost and president.”
A website has been established for students seeking peer mentors or to become peer mentors. It also lists the numerous existing peer-mentoring programs on campus. Additionally, several students have organized a March 28 conference at NIU for other students who might be interested in becoming peer mentors.
The mentoring committee will survey students participating in both the peer- and alumni-mentoring pilots and report its findings to the president in April, with recommendations for permanent programs to launch next fall.
“The new programs would provide additional opportunities for undeclared majors or students who are in majors where there hasn’t been the opportunity for peer or alumni mentoring,” Elish-Piper said.
“I strongly feel mentoring can make a real difference for students,” she added. “It also provides us with a chance to connect with alumni and give them opportunities to give back.”
‘Helping the next guy along’
Alumnus Matt Solomon, a novelist and contributing writer to the satire news site, The Onion, would agree. During his college days in the mid-1980s, he benefited from his participation in the Forensics Team and the mentoring of Judy Santacaterina, who still coaches the team today.
So when forensics recently launched its own alumni-mentoring program, Solomon got right on board.
For the past month, he has been mentoring Forensics Team President Kevin Bartelt, a junior communication major and aspiring comedy and entertainment writer.
“When I look back on my college career, the forensics program was so important in teaching me how to write and to stand up in front of an audience and express my ideas. It was really the single most formative educational activity I ever did,” Solomon said. “It was such a lifeline that I feel it’s my responsibility to help the next guy along. And it’s fun. I love talking about comedy with Kevin.”
Solomon and Bartelt had previously met in the fall 2012, when Solomon visited campus and conducted mock interviews with communication students. Bartelt was “interviewing” for a comedy-writing job.
“After the interview, he gave me his two cents on comedy writing and what I should be doing,” Bartelt said. “I remember leaving the room thinking, I have to talk to this guy again.”
Now as a mentor, Solomon is providing regular feedback to Bartelt on draft entries for a comedy blog the student writes.
“He tells me what he likes and gives me constructive feedback for what I can work on,” Bartelt said. “I’m really grateful. Working with Matt, who is such a talented alumnus, has made me feel more confident.”
Next on the horizon: internships
Alumni mentors are not expected to offer job opportunities to students. But President Baker has his sights set on stepping up internship programs as well.
Noting that the No. 1 predictor of student career success is whether students complete an internship during college, Baker has said he wants to offer internships to every student who wishes to have one. A consultant will be visiting campus late this semester to examine ways to expand existing offerings.
The university already has a substantial foundation to build upon. Many NIU academic programs and departments, such as accountancy, nursing, education and public administration, already require internships or on-the-job training.