When Malena Larson started as a first-year student last year, she just found it comforting to have a student mentor she could contact to answer any questions she had about starting college at University of Wisconsin-Stout.
“It’s nice to talk to someone who has been in your shoes,” said Larson, a sophomore from Clear Lake majoring in industrial design. “I thought it would make my first year go more smoothly to have someone to talk to about how to sign up for classes or what to bring to campus.”
Last year MentorLink was started as a pilot program at UW-Stout with about half of the first-year students invited to be matched to a volunteer upper-level student peer mentor. During the pilot year, 400 first-year students participated and were matched to 167 mentors.
This fall MentorLink rolled out to all first-year students. So far, 808 mentees have been matched with 235 mentors. There is no cost to students. Volunteer mentors must be at least a sophomore and have a 2.5 grade-point average.
UW-Stout is the only UW System school to offer a comprehensive first-year mentoring program, according to Aaron Aure, executive director of Enrollment and Retention Services.
“We are helping students to connect and help each other,” Aure said. “It was started as a support system for the transition to college for new first-year students.”
Many interactions between the mentors and first-year students are from June to mid-September and then over the winter break, Aure said.
“Mentoring is a high-impact practice for retention,” Aure said. “Retention is usually 68 or 69 percent from first year to second year. I have goals of improving that.”
With students who had three or more interactions with their mentor from fall to spring semester during the MentorLink pilot, there was a 90% retention rate, according to Darren Ward, coordinator of the MentorLink program and first-year student adviser.
From the fall of 2018 to this fall, enrollment retention of those students was 78%. For students not participating in the MentorLink program, retention was 84% and 73%, respectively.
“I am very pleased with the numbers,” Ward said, adding he was also happy to see the interest in MentorLink continue to grow.
The program also gives upper-level students a leadership opportunity and the opportunity to give back to UW-Stout.
Mentors and mentees are matched through a survey that asks about interests, background, academics and personal preferences. The mentee then chooses a mentor based on recommendations made by the program. Common discussions focus on classes and academics, study tips, making UW-Stout home and getting involved on campus.
One popular method of interaction is text messaging. Since June, mentors and mentees have exchanged about 5,000 text messages. At some point, they are encouraged to meet through a video chat or face-to-face on campus. Mentors are not intended to give counseling or mental health advice.
“If you boil it down, the intent of the program is to give students someone they feel connected to and they can ask questions of,” Ward said.
Mentee, mentor see positive results
Larson met with her mentor every three or four weeks throughout the academic year. She liked that the program was not just for students struggling with school but allowed her someone to talk to.
She also liked the flexibility of the program that was based on her schedule and allowed her and her mentor to decide when they would meet.
Eventually, Larson, who is a resident adviser this year at North Hall, would like to become a mentor in the program.
Ciara Leonhardt, a junior from Delafield majoring in graphic design and interactive media, is mentoring four first-year students. As a tour guide for the Admissions Office, being a mentor just seemed like a natural fit, she noted, and a way to give back to UW-Stout and make new friends.
“I love giving advice,” she said. “I like answering their questions. I learn something in the process. If they have a question about a student organization, I get to learn about that organization too. I think the program is really helpful for first-year students to get that leg up on starting school.”
She has texted with her mentees and is looking forward to meeting them.
One of her mentees is Juliann Wick, a first-year student from St. Cloud, Minn., who is majoring in family and consumer science education.
“I joined because I thought it would be a good idea to get an upperclassman’s perspective on everything and to get advice,” Wick said. “I would recommend it to other students because then there is always going to be that person you can ask questions of about anything.”
Leonhardt believes MentorLink is a professional program and is proud to be involved.
“It shows we are caring and trying to keep our students,” she said. “This is a step toward retention to make sure first-year students are prepared for their college experience. It is revolutionary to have this for students before they come to campus. It shows we care and want to create lifelong relationships.
“I would recommend anyone who has the time to be a mentor,” she said. “It’s great to be able to grow and to be able to help other students.”
UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.
UW-Stout junior mentor Ciara Leonhardt, at left, meets with her first-year mentee Juliann Wick for the first time outside the Memorial Student Center.
Malena Larson was part of a pilot program of a volunteer peer mentor program at UW-Stout last year. She found it helpful to have an upper-level student to talk to as a first-year student.