When a global pandemic forced Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) to move abruptly to a distance-learning format in mid-March, students in the BMCC Inspires and Motivates People to Achieve in College Together (IMPACT) peer mentoring program were already engaged in a structure to support their studies.
The question was, how to adapt that structure to a virtual format.
“When the state’s stay-at-home directive first went into effect, we were determined to find ways to keep our campus engagement high and to maintain our network of support,” says Denise DellaPorta, student life specialist for peer mentoring and success in the BMCC Office of Student Affairs.
“We first looked to online opportunities to enable our mentees to continue meeting weekly with their mentors,” she says. “We had to be open and flexible to whatever the mentees were comfortable with — Zoom, email, text, FaceTime. We have also encouraged our student mentors to participate in town hall meetings and opportunities like LinkedIn Learning Workshops and virtual mentoring meet ups.”
IMPACT peer mentor and nursing major Binh Au has explored new strategies, as well.
“I spent time learning Zoom, and shared a tutorial on it with my mentees,” says Au. “In the beginning, I was focusing only on them, the mentees. Then, I realized, if I tell them a little bit about me, if I share that I’m having some difficulties learning online, too, it relaxes them and strengthens our bonds.”
Au also sifts through the emails students receive, letting them know about discounts, services and opportunities at BMCC, and forwards some of them to mentees who might be interested.
This is all made easier by the fact that Au already had a strong relationship with her mentees when the stay-at-home order went into effect, and it brings up an issue DellaPorta is looking at now.
“Since the switch to a virtual program happened mid-semester, we had the advantage of starting out with a certain level of rapport,” she says. “How will we create rapport with a group that starts out with an online program, in Fall 2020?”
She points out, for example, that some students won’t have the privacy at home to speak candidly with their mentor.
“How do you build rapport and care if you only have email or texting as an option?” she says. “We’re facing challenges, but we’re trying to think outside the box so we’re ready for another virtual semester this fall.”
In Fall 2019, the Heckscher Foundation for Children awarded the IMPACT mentoring program a one-year, catalytic grant of $220,000, and BMCC agreed to match that amount for a second year.
As reported on the Heckscher website, the initial grant has doubled the size of BMCC’s IMPACT Peer Mentoring program.
Meeting online, DellaPorta and her team are maximizing strides made with Heckscher’s support, leveraging the program’s strengths to keep students on track. They are also carefully watching participant data.
“Our 232-member cohort is doing better than we thought they would,” she says. “We’re still seeing some high GPAs. That speaks to the resilience of the mentees, and the same goes for our mentors.”
The program’s end-of-semester feedback sessions reflect that resiliency. “Our mentors are telling us that having other students count on them was a factor in their own persistence,” DellaPorta says.
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