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Mentoring Makes an Impact on Gators

Freshmen Cynthia Andrade (right) benefits from having Dee Bardwell as a peer mentor. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea)

Freshmen Cynthia Andrade (right) benefits from having Dee Bardwell as a peer mentor.
(Photo by Thomas B. Shea)

At the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD), students learn from award-winning faculty in classrooms and laboratories. Many Gators also receive invaluable insights from both professors and peers long after class is dismissed. Sometimes, just an informal discussion in person or through email can offer a wealth of information that helps students succeed both academically and personally.

Mentoring factors prominently into the #UHD2020 initiative aimed at supporting First Time In College (FTIC) students. Launched last year, #UHD2020 provided students with a wealth of information through its extensive orientation (Gator Gateway) and registration (Gator Ready) events. The initiative also offered students opportunities to connect with both faculty and peer mentors. After the first semester of #UHD2020 mentoring, students are already benefitting from these interactions.

Data collected by UHD’s Division of Academic Affairs indicates that students who participated in fall faculty-peer mentoring earned higher grade point averages than those who opted out of the program. These findings also reflect that students who were mentored by faculty and peers spent more hours studying, kept up with class assignments and were active in campus events and activities.

“This tells us that that mentoring is working for our students,” said Faiza Khoja, associate vice president for Academic Affairs. “Our faculty are building relationships with our students, and peers are helping them navigate the University and develop study skills. All of this combined is having an impact.”

Among the faculty members who served as mentors is Jerry Johnson, assistant vice president of Research and Sponsored Programs and associate professor of biology and biochemistry. He worked with six students during the fall 2016 semester. During group meetings, he and the mentees would discuss topics including success in college, undergraduate research, strategic course scheduling, and avoiding the sophomore slump.

Mentoring, he said, is important for FTIC students because they’re new to the college experience. Attending a university for the first time can be overwhelming, but having a voice of experience can offer reassurance, he added.

“The transition to college requires a rapid maturity, academically and personally, that can be facilitated through the mentoring process,” Johnson said. “Mentoring can provide a personal relationship with a faculty member that is cognizant of the academic issues students are facing, help students avoid common mistakes, and provide emotional support.”

Faculty-peer mentoring also helps build bridges between students and professors, Khoja said. She indicated that freshmen may be reluctant to approach faculty members. After regular meetings, they begin to see their mentors as more than just professors.

“Mentoring builds a connection between students and faculty,” she said. “Through regular interactions, they view faculty as role models.”

Peer mentors are just as effective, Khoja said. Because they’re closer in age, students may relate more to these mentors, or they may communicate using technology such as social media.

Freshman business major Cynthia Andrade has been working with peer mentor Dee Bardwell, a biotechnology student. The experience has been particularly helpful in making Andrade feel at home at UHD.

“On the first day of classes, I remember that she texted me while I was on my way to UHD asking me what courses I will be taking and telling me that if needed anything on the first day I could reach out to her,” Andrade said. “This really gave a sense of comfort on my first day of school as a college student.”

Students like Andrade weren’t required to participate in faculty-peer mentoring, but many took advantage of the opportunity to connect with other members of the campus community. Andrade said that she would recommend faculty-peer mentoring to any student arriving to UHD.

“I was a very nervous freshman, who needed some comfort and support,” she said. “Many first-year students might feel that they are fish lost in the sea. This is where the importance of peer mentoring comes in place because they can ask their mentors for advice or answers.”

Fall data was collected by comparing the academic performances of FTIC students who participated in faculty-peer mentoring with those who did not. Information also was gathered through qualitative surveys of students who are being mentored.

While the data reflects positive results for students who are being mentored, it does not spotlight the rewards reaped by faculty and peers. Johnson said that the mentoring process is essential to the educational process and to being a productive member of society.

“I believe that students make faculty better at everything,” he said. “They make us better teachers, better listeners, better researchers, better advisors, and better people.”

A summary of faculty-peer mentoring data is available by contacting Research and Data Specialist Nazly Dyer, in the Office of Institutional Research at DyerN@uhd.edu.