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Roy Haggerty and student mentee Alejandra Fuerte

Enhancing diversity and academic success with a new culture of mentoring

By Srila Nayak

College of Science Dean Roy Haggerty with mentee Alejandra Fuerte, a sophomore studying fashion and apparel design.

The university-wide Beaver Connect mentoring program (formerly known as the Faculty-Student Mentor Program) is one of several ambitious initiatives that have helped undergraduate student success, leading to the highest ever first-year retention rate of 85.4% at Oregon State University. The College of Science has played a leading role in developing, organizing and supporting this program.

The mentoring program supports one of OSU’s biggest priorities to create and sustain a culture of inclusive excellence by increasing retention and graduation rates for students in disciplines around the university and by reducing or eliminating academic disparities for low-income and underrepresented minority students.

Since launching in fall 2018, Beaver Connect has served more than 580 students across the university by connecting underrepresented minority students, first-generation students and students with high financial need in their first year with faculty and peer mentors.

The mentors — volunteer faculty and paid student mentors in their sophomore, junior and senior years — support students as they adjust to college life, focusing on issues that make the transition for these students particularly challenging.

Participants meet in small teams, comprising up to five students, a faculty mentor and a student peer, every other week during the academic term. Students receive timely guidance, assistance and information about campus life, financial aid, academic policies, tools and resources to empower them to succeed academically and bolster their sense of belonging on campus that is crucial for persistence and other positive academic outcomes.

College of Science Dean Roy Haggerty who leads Beaver Connect explains that the program’s success owes a lot to its unusual mentoring system. “Having both a peer mentor and a faculty mentor is an excellent balance. To my knowledge this is the only program like it in the country,” said Haggerty. Most mentoring programs utilize either peer or faculty mentors but rarely both.

“We didn’t feel that peer mentoring was going to provide the connection to OSU that we were looking for. We also didn’t think that a pure faculty model would work because it would overload the faculty with scheduling and other tasks. The combination has been a big success,” remarked Haggerty.

Enhancing equity through mentoring

For many students, adaptation to their new life on campus means finding their feet in a variety of ways, including and beyond academics. Having supportive mentors one can trust and who genuinely care about their academic success can make a tremendous difference to the first-year student experience and the path forward. That has been the case with second year BioHealth Sciences student Maria Robelo, a peer mentor at Beaver Connect. She is also an alumna of the mentoring program having participated in it during her first year at OSU.

Maria Robelo, a biohealth sciences major, is a peer mentor at Beaver Connect.

Maria Robelo, a biohealth sciences major, is a peer mentor at Beaver Connect.

“After joining the program as a mentee in my first year, I found a new appreciation for support systems,” said Robelo. “As a mentee, I learned to confide in others and ask for help when I needed it, and as a mentor I have cultivated new ways in which to give advice using my own experiences and other resources I have acquired.”

Robelo said that her group meetings contain discussions on anything and everything that a student brings up, targeting both academics and emotional well-being. Mentors strive to create a friendly, open and warm atmosphere, employing a personal approach to help students connect and integrate academically and socially. Among other aspects, Robelo knows from her own experience that keeping up with deadlines and academic schedules and cultivating this habit early on sets students up for academic success.

“I make sure my mentee has important information such as the dates for electing to change a letter grade to satisfactory or unsatisfactory and upcoming events that might interest them,” Robelo said. “Even though I or my faculty mentor may not always have all the answers, we work together to find them and be of help.”

Providing undergraduate students with access to mentoring has become an urgent national priority. This is particularly true of STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) degree programs in which the dropout rates of Latinx, Native American, black students and first-generation students remains higher than white and Asian peers and students with at least one college educated parent.

Postsecondary institutions across the United States have undertaken a variety of mentoring programs to increase degree completion rates and reduce inequities for marginalized and underrepresented groups of students. Notwithstanding the wide prevalence and diversity of undergraduate mentorship programs nationally, Beaver Connect stands out for its transformational quality and highly successful outcomes in a short span of time.

Measuring the effectiveness of the mentoring program

After just one year, the program is already making a difference in the lives of first year students. Those who participated in one or more mentoring sessions had a higher GPA as well as higher rates of persistence and retention in their programs. The first-year retention rate for participants, the majority of whom were first-generation students and students of color, was 88.4%. This is 7.4 percentage points higher than a matched cohort of students who did not participate. The rate of participation by first-year students rose from 65% in year 1 to 85% in year 2. This refers to student participation in at least one meeting or communication with their teams.

Because of the program’s success, OSU is expanding Beaver Connect to achieve greater equity in higher education and reach the retention goal of 90% for Pell-eligible and underrepresented students. According to Haggerty, the program will be scaled up to accommodate 500 students, 150 faculty and 150 peer mentors each year.

“If it continues with the same success as the pilot program has had, this will take OSU about one quarter of the way to its first year student retention goal of 90% and about the same amount toward its 6-year graduation goal of 70%,” he said. A total of 195 students and more than 130 peers from the College of Science have participated in the pilot program.

The generosity of faculty and students has made a huge impact on undergraduate student success. Faculty mentors from the College of Science include Bill Bogley and Enrique Thomann (mathematics), Francis Chan (biology), Janet Tate (physics), Kenton Hokanson (biochemistry and biophysics) and Chong Fang (chemistry).

Haggerty also attributes a large measure of the success of Beaver Connect to one of the world’s foremost mentoring experts, Dr. Gloria Crisp, a professor in the College of Education, who helped design the program and track its outcomes. The program would not be the same without administrative staff Caitlin McVay and Gabs James “who have done all the heavy lifting of organizing the program and hiring and training the peer mentors,” Haggerty added.

Due to the Covid-19 campus shutdown, Haggerty, Robelo and other mentors are using Zoom to meet their mentees. While the online atmosphere is not ideal for Haggerty who used to take his mentees out to lunch when possible, there is an unexpected silver lining. “I expect that as a result of our experience this term, we are going to learn how to scale Beaver Connect for OSU Ecampus students,” he said.