Sometimes the best teachers are the students.
That's proving to be the case for dozens of first-year Southern Oregon University students who signed up for a peer-to-peer mentoring program at the beginning of this academic year.
It's not always study time for the mentor-mentee pairs, said program coordinator Jessica Rapport. The program emphasizes social interaction as much as academics, meaning trips to the grocery store together, volunteer work around the community, or nights out on the town are absolutely acceptable.
There are about 70 first-year students and 60 mentors enrolled in the program, up from about 35 students total last year, Rapport said. Each pair of students is required to spend at least one hour a week together.
Some mentors have more than one mentee, she said.
The one-hour per week minimum is typically no problem for mentor Robyn Eckert and her first-year student Lakia Solomon, a freshman theater major from McKinleyville, Calif.
Eckert, a 19-year-old sophomore psychology and sociology major, was a mentee in the program last year, and is only a year older that Solomon.
"My mentor helped me out a lot last year. "… She was more than a mentor. She was like a big sister to me, and I wanted to be that for someone else," said Eckert, sitting beside a grinning Solomon.
"She is like a sister to me," said Solomon, looking at Eckert. "For me, this was my first time being on my own. I didn't know what to expect. ... Having someone there as a friend, someone that could help me get out and meet more people, has been so nice."
One of the program's greatest benefits, according to Rapport, is the go-easy feeling that peer-to-peer mentoring enables.
"It offers students a type of support that faculty can't," she said. "I think a lot of them feel more comfortable sharing things with their peers as opposed to a staff member."
The program is paid for by a three-year grant from the Oregon Campus Compact and AmeriCorps, which covers the cost of Rapport's salary. SOU will have to decide whether to fund the program next year when the grant expires.
Senior psychology major Raul Tovar, a mentor in the program, describes it as the "to do and what not to do" of college life for first-year students, which includes transfers, first time college students, veterans coming back to campus and people returning to college after years absent.
"We get to do whatever we want, that's what got me interested "… the social aspect of it," said Tovar, 22.
Tovar and his first-year student, Jon Wright, from Livermore, Calif., text frequently, they said, and just hang out.
"Having a big group of people to be around is great," said Wright, a 19-year-old freshman business major. "The whole mentor program has become a family for me."
None of these students spent most of their time together studying, but that's not to say the program hasn't greatly benefited their academic performance, Solomon said.
"For me, personally, if I'm not feeling comfortable in a place, my academics don't do well," she said. "This program has helped me feel at home."
Both Wright and Solomon said they will likely mentor next year in the program, if it's still intact.
The program's aim is to increase the first-to-second year retention rate at SOU, said Jim Beaver, SOU director of interactive marketing and media relations. Currently the school's retention rate is floating around 70 percent, with a hope that the program will help SOU achieve a retention rate of 75 percent in the area within the next two years, he said.
"As SOU continues to focus on its retention rates, I see this program as a really, really strong asset," Rapport said. "I think we've created a sustainable, successful program that we'll be able to get the university to pick up next year."
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.