New program connects students with peer mentors to help navigate undergraduate life
Second year is an exciting time for undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts & Science beginning their programs of study and settling into university life. But navigating the myriad opportunities available in each department and charting an academic course for their remaining undergraduate years – and beyond – can be daunting.
Brianna Lane experienced these challenges as a newly admitted student to the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) program in September 2018.
“I was looking for help with sorting through the many opportunities U of T offers, and I wasn’t sure where to start,” she said.
Brianna found support through the new EEB Peer Mentorship Program launched last fall, which connects second-year students with a third-, fourth- or fifth-year student to provide guidance and advice throughout the year.
The program was born after the department ran a series of student surveys and focus groups to learn more about their needs.
“We learned that students often felt a little bit lost making decisions about their time at U of T, especially in their first and second year,” said EEB Professor and Undergraduate Associate Chair Asher Cutter, who led the program’s development.
“We decided that one way to help bridge this gap was to create a formal, but friendly way for upper-year students to interact with younger students to communicate all the cool experiences they’ve had – or wish they’d had – to give younger students a leg up in making the most of their experience.”
In its inaugural year, the program connected 36 students with 26 mentors. Participants met face-to-face at least four times throughout the year, and attended workshops on topics such as: gaining research experience; choosing courses; applying for scholarships; and preparing for graduate school and careers. Both mentees and mentors earned a notation on their Co-Curricular Record for participating in the program.
“Students told us about how they learned new writing and time management skills from their mentor, or strategies for making the most of the summertime, how best to realize plans for a future career, or the pros and cons of doing research or an international exchange,” said Cutter.
Brianna signed up for the program seeking advice on upper-year courses and research opportunities. Her mentor, Cole Brookson, gave her insights on courses she was currently enrolled in as well as future courses she could benefit from. He also helped her gain research experience and find opportunities to pursue over the summer.
“The program has taught me how to maximize my time and potential at U of T,” Brianna said. “I’ve been able to think more strategically about my undergrad, what I want to accomplish during this time, and where I want it to take me.”
Ryan Lane, a second-year student taking a double major in EEB and Human Biology, kept in touch with his mentor Vicki Zhang regularly throughout the year. In addition to assisting him with course selection and sharing department events, Vicki helped Ryan line up a place in a faculty research lab in the EEB department.
“Vicki has really gone above and beyond in helping me out and making sure I make the best of every opportunity,” Ryan said. “The chance to join a lab with actual post-docs and master’s students has proven invaluable.”
But the program hasn’t just helped mentees succeed – it has also been beneficial for their student mentors as they complete their undergraduate studies and prepare for the next step.
“Being a mentor has shaped me into a positive role model, a better communicator and an encouraging and knowledgeable individual,” said Ryan’s mentor, Vicki Zhang, a fourth-year student majoring in EEB and Environmental Biology.
Cole Brookson, a fifth-year student pursuing a double major in EEB and Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, said being a mentor has helped improve his interpersonal and communication skills and that he would “absolutely” recommend the experience to other students.
“Engaging in a mentorship program is not only helpful to mentees, but it can also be incredibly beneficial for mentors as it forces you to think critically about your experience and determine what has and has not allowed you to be successful in your journey so far,” he said. “In addition to building important mentorship skills, it allows you to reflect on your own experience and help improve someone else’s.”
Following a successful first year, the EEB department will continue running the Peer Mentorship Program next fall, with plans to help even more newly admitted students make important connections, overcome the challenges they face, and get the most out of their undergraduate years at U of T.