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.
Pairs of mentors bonded with groups of 40 to 50 students over the summer, in some cases visiting their hometowns, and assisted during first-week orientation. Trained in group facilitation, resources and referrals, the mentors lead workshops through the fall on developing academic tools for success.
Adapting to university "is one of the steepest learning curves they [students] will ever have," says Nona Robinson, assistant vice-president of students at Trent. "It's often the first major transition [for students] and they might not have worked out what works for them." At larger universities, mentors are equally as important. This year, the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon expanded the roster of volunteer mentors in the flagship undergraduate peer-assisted learning program to more than 100 upper-year students, a five-fold increase from its inception in 2008.
The mentors, selected for their academic ability and leadership skills, coach students enrolled in traditionally difficult first-year courses. The mentors benefit, too, acquiring proficiency in communication and leadership and a certificate for their work.
"From an institutional perspective it helps student engagement on every front," says Jim Greer, director of Saskatchewan's university learning centre. "It is a win-win all around."
This year, the Saskatoon university expanded peer mentoring for graduate students and those studying online at satellite campuses.
At Wilfrid Laurier University, peer assistants are part of a broader strategy to promote learning at the Waterloo, Ont., institution.
For example, peer-assisted skills sessions are embedded in a large first-year class known as global studies, with students earning 10 per cent of their grades for developing a career plan, learning about financial literacy and acquiring learning skills.
Peer assistants, paid $19.40 an hour, are recruited from third- and fourth-year honours students in global studies who received a minimum A-minus on the introductory course, demonstrate leadership and receive 35 hours of training, with more through the semester. As mentors, they teach students to develop "how to learn" strategies during the review of course content.
"We saw a lack of transition skills from our incoming students," says Michael Lisetto Smith, manager of study skills and supplemental instruction at Laurier. "They were struggling to navigate the university bureaucracy and rules. Some of them don't have career direction."
Early results are encouraging.
In 2011-12, the number of students who made an academic plan rose to 48 per cent from 26 per cent after completing the sessions, according to the university, while those who felt they now had a career direction rose to 92 per cent from 72 per cent. Over the next five years, the university will track participants to see if their acquired skills lasted through to graduation.
Elsewhere, mentors are recruited for so-called "killer courses" – large,and growing, first-year classes with a high rate of failure or dropout.
One of them is the University of Guelph's Biology 1090, an introductory first-year course on cellular and molecular biology and genetics.
Naythrah Thevathasan is one of several mentors for supporting learning groups in the first-year course that she excelled in as a freshman.
As a group leader, she attends all the lectures for Biology 1090 and meets weekly with first-year students for three hours to teach them how to take notes, study and prepare for exams. Questions about course content, however, are directed to teaching assistants and the professor. "We don't give them the fish; we teach them how to fish," says Thevathasan, a fourth-year student in biomedical science and a mentor for the past two years. "When they [students] talk to a peer, it is a little bit different than talking to a professor."
According to Guelph, average final grades for students enrolled in supported learning groups are consistently several points higher than for non-participants.
As a leader, Thevathasan receives an honorarium of $600 per semester for tuition.
A campus and community volunteer who enjoys helping others, Thevathasan says she is a principal beneficiary of the experience.
"I have become a better student, a better learner and a better citizen because I have been part of this program," she says. "It makes you inspired to do more for yourself, your community and your campus."
Struggling students often the last to seek help
Researchers examining the value of peer mentoring and other student support services have discovered a troubling pattern: those who most need the help tend not to seek it out.
"You may build it, but they may not come," says Richard Wiggers, executive director of research and programs at the higher education Quality Council of Ontario, which has commissioned several studies on peer mentoring and services for students. "It's amazing how little students take advantage of the time faculty do offer in terms of office hours."
The students most likely to seek academic or other assistance tend to be those doing well but ambitious to improve their marks.
But Wiggers says those with "the lowest GPA [grade point average] and highest risk are the students who are the least likely to know help is there, and they are also the least likely to go and get it."
That said, he adds, "anything that an institution does to make a student feel the institution is trying to help them and that the program is trying to ensure their success is helpful to do." Just don't assume, he cautions, that a single program such as peer mentoring will be a silver bullet for student engagement and retention.
In a 2011 paper for HEQCO, on defining and measuring student success, Wiggers and fellow researcher Christine arnold found that "very few" students knew about the wide range of academic, personal and financial support offered by Ontario colleges and universities.
The report recommends that institutions "make support services as easily accessible as possible."
Improving student retention, ASAP
Self-identified aboriginal students make up about 15 per cent of the first-year class of the College of arts and science at the University of Saskatchewan, well above their presence on the campus as a whole.
But only about half of the 300 First nation, Métis and Inuit students who enter the college make it to second year, tripped up by inadequate finances, a lack of academic preparation, an absence of role models and family obligations.
Improving the retention rate – currently about 55 per cent compared to 75 per cent for other first-year students – is a priority for the college.
"Until we do that, it's almost inappropriate for us to increase the number of aboriginal students coming through the door," college dean Peter Stoicheff says. "We know something is happening in first year that is not quite right and we are trying to address that."
Last year, as a pilot project, the college introduced the Aboriginal Student Achievement Program (ASAP), which offered small classes, student advisers and peer mentors to 68 self-identified aboriginal students.
This year, the university expects 120 students to join the program, patterned on the university's successful use of "learning communities" for small cohorts of first-year-students to study together and connect to older student peer mentors and the university.
Since its introduction of learning communities in 2007, the university reports a retention rate of 81 per cent for participating arts and science students compared to 74.7 per cent for non-participants.
For Jacquelyne Nokusis, who lives in Saskatoon but whose home community of Peepeekisis First Nation is about 350 kilometres southeast of the city, arriving on campus last year was a little unnerving.
"I did not know what to expect," says Nokusis, who worked in Saskatoon for several years and is the mother of a seven-year-old daughter. "Especially being 26 and a mother, I didn't think i was prepared."
She signed up for ASAP, which linked her with academic advisers and peer mentors – older students trained to offer workshops in study habits and time management and to provide general advice and encouragement.
"The program has done so much for me," says Nokusis, who hopes to become a doctor trained in conventional medicine and native healing. She is majoring in microbiology and immunology, with a minor in toxicology.
Earlier this year, in second term, she bonded with an aboriginal peer mentor who was one of the few recruited for the pilot program. "she, like most of us, had a family and it was a lot easier to connect," Nokusis said.
She did well academically in her first year – especially in the small-class learning communities with other aboriginal students – and applied to become a peer mentor for this fall.
"I really want to connect with other aboriginal students and hopefully inspire some of them to continue their studies," Nokusis said. "I have lived in the city and worked in non-aboriginal communities for many years, but it was still hard for me to make the transition to university."
This year, the university has signed up eight aboriginal students (out of a total of 14) as peer mentors.
"We hope that this proportion will continue to increase as more aboriginal students go through ASAP and so more upper-year students are aware of the program and its value," writes Kristina Bidwell, the college's associate dean of aboriginal affairs, in an e-mail.
Bidwell says, "I think it is valuable for aboriginal students in first year to see other aboriginal students who have made it through that tough first year and are now successful and continuing students."