Amid the thick of COVID-19, entities around the globe rushed to make necessary adjustments to keep people safe and stay in operation. The Office of First-Year Experience peer mentor program is no exception. Implementing changes was no easy task for First-Year Mentoring. The program manages 10 peer leaders and over 110 peer mentors. Each mentor is assigned roughly 70 students to work with over the school year. Under normal circumstances, mentors collectively contact and meet with over 8,000 new students every fall and winter semester.
“The goal of First-Year Mentoring is to help each student reach their potential by meeting one-on-one with their peer mentor,” said Dan Chandler, assistant director of First-Year Experience. “A mentor is trying to build a relationship with each student to help them with whatever they want to talk about such as study skills or where to find mental health or conflict resolution resources.”
To accommodate the pandemic, First-Year Mentoring shifted to a fully remote operation. In-person peer and student interactions normally held at The Hub, located in the library, switched to Zoom and text messages. Last year, over 95 percent of students met with their mentors using Zoom. The program also held virtual meeting rooms from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., where a mentor was available for students to converse with.
“With COVID, we thought once we went online, people won’t want to meet with their mentors,” said Phillip Rash, director of First-Year Experience. “We have such a high touch presence, interaction and outreach that we thought student and peer mentor interactions would drastically decrease, but they didn’t even go down by 10 percent.”
In 2020, more than 19,000 mentor-student meetings were held, not much of a decrease from 2019 when 21,000 meetings took place. Even though 2020 saw a small dip, the number of student and mentor interactions has steadily increased in the last six years.
Long before the pandemic, the leaders over First-Year Mentoring created strategies and invested in resources to best meet the needs of students. Their long-term planning paid off, and the program continues to succeed. The following three strategies have contributed to the growth of the peer mentor program:
1. Pre-Arrival Mentoring
Pre-arrival efforts begin one week after a student is admitted to BYU. Each student is assigned a mentor to work with during fall and winter semesters. The process starts with a personalized welcome text and subsequent texts that continue throughout the school year. Last year, the peer mentors sent over 200,000 texts to pre-arrival students, and program leaders received more than 43,000 responses.
“Our pre-arrival efforts start so much earlier than arrival—we truly believe in a year-long, from admissions to finishing second-semester orientation process,” Chandler said.
2. Weekly Mentoring Email
Each week, mentors send an email to the students they work with and invite them to meet. Mentors also share additional information and resources. The emails prove to be helpful because 70 percent of students meet with their mentors at least once and about 50 percent meet more than once.
3. Mentor Training
Once hired, all mentors receive comprehensive training to prepare them to best assist new students. The instruction includes eight weeks of summer online training and two weeks of pre-fall semester practical intensive and team-building training. Once fall and winter semesters begin, mentors receive weekly supervision, attend additional training meetings with a student leader or supervisor and participate in an hour-long group training meeting.
First-Year Mentoring at BYU is truly one of a kind and 100 percent student-centered. It is one of the largest peer mentoring programs in the nation. The program includes training and follow-ups for mentors and pays all of its employees. Most programs are all volunteer based for both mentors and new students.
“We attend many conferences," said Chandler. As part of the conferences, we offer training on our First-Year Mentoring program. Our training is always packed, and those attending are amazed by what we do.”
To build on the First-Year Mentoring efforts, program leaders used COVID as an opportunity to re-evaluate each part of the program to provide a better experience for students. The expansion and redesign of The Hub is one of the areas evaluated by the leaders. The Hub is an area dedicated to freshmen as a place where they can study, receive help and meet with mentors.
As COVID numbers continue to decrease and restrictions lift, First-Year Mentoring will allow mentors and first-year students to have virtual and in-person interactions.