Mellow Dee Laguerre, 18, lives just a 20-minute bus ride from the University of Ottawa, but it may as well be a world away for the first-year student.
Prior to arriving on campus this fall, she took advantage of a new program at the university that links older-student mentors with freshmen from the same region of the country.
Over the summer, Laguerre met incoming third-year student Rahel Gebremariam, who helped with online course registration and offered a personal tour of the campus based on the newcomer’s course timetable. Gebremariam is also a regional mentor for students who, like the two of them, graduated from Pathways to Education in Ottawa, a non-profit coaching program for low-income high school students to pursue higher education.
“I will be going to university and it seems like a really big world,” Laguerre says. “It has eliminated a lot of stress for me to have Rahel here in the past few months to support me.”
With student engagement a growing priority – a response to large class sizes and dropout problems – Canadian universities are recruiting upper-year students as powerful allies to help the newcomers make the most of their university experience.
“It is a lot easier to retain a student than to recruit a student,” says Christine Lamothe, manager of the regional mentor program at the University of Ottawa, which administers 19 other mentoring programs.
As a regional mentor, Gebremariam opened a Facebook page for her group of incoming students and is available for in-person advice. “Some students don’t know how to manage their time initially,” she says. By mid-term exams, she adds, “they get stressed and nervous and need to figure out what to do.” A little coaching early on may be enough to keep a student in the program.
In Ontario, the retention rate from first to second year is about 89 per cent, according to the Council of Ontario Universities. But the figure, based on enrolment as of Nov. 1, omits those who bail early in the semester and those who drop out but return later.
“Instead of waiting for the students to reach out to us, we reach out to them,” adds Lamothe, whose regional mentors help students register for courses, discover the campus and the city and are trained to answer questions on personal, social and academic issues.
The first few weeks of school are an especially vulnerable time for freshmen. Last year, a few weeks into her first semester, University of Ottawa student Marie Ottenbrite had pangs of homesickness for her family and life in Whitby, Ont.
So the 18-year-old biochemistry major contacted her regional mentor, Vince Kang, now a third-year history and politics student at Ottawa. They first met through the Facebook page he set up for first-year students coming to Ottawa from the Greater Toronto Area. In the summer of 2012, he offered tips on how to navigate the university system and flagged travel deals for students travelling between Toronto and Ottawa.
In late September, with homesickness getting in the way of studies, Ottenbrite contacted Kang for advice. He took her to dinner (with funds from the mentoring program) and talked her through her various worries.
“It was nice to have an older friend who knew what he was doing, not just in an academic sense,” says Ottenbrite, now in second year after an ultimately successful freshman experience. “He knew the good places to go downtown and he knew a lot of cool stuff.”
Kang is from Oshawa, Ont., which is right next door to Ottenbrite’s hometown of Whitby. “We know what it is like to be away from home,” he says of the perspective mentors offer.
The university hired Kang and other mentors for 32 hours a week at $14 an hour, through a student work-study program that provides employment for students to pay for their education expenses. During school, the mentors work 10 hours a week at the same pay.
Kang confides that he would be a mentor for no pay. “You get that genuine feeling that you are actually helping someone and making a difference on campus,” he says.
Mentoring students by region is one of many models being used to persuade students to stay through to graduation.
In a new initiative that began this fall, Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., offered all 2,100 first-year undergraduates an opportunity to connect with older students as peer supporters.