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Student mentors point the way to Success Central

Errol McDonald meets with his Student Success mentor Natania Zureiqi. (Photo by John Atashian)

By Loretta Waldman

A peer mentoring initiative aimed at improving graduation and retention rates among students of color is producing encouraging results.

On average, 46 percent of the African-American and Latinx students participating in Success Central from 2014-2015, the first full year of the program, have graduated. That’s more than twice the graduation rate among African-American and Latinx students who started at Central in the years 2010-12. Participants in the program also felt more confident about their study skills and their ability to succeed, handle stress, and persevere through the challenges of their major, according to results of a program-related survey.

The results are based on an initial group of 39 students and represent the latest good news for the initiative. Its early success, though more modest, was significant enough to not only continue offering the program but to expand it to include all freshman and sophomore students who might benefit, according to Associate Professor of Criminology Reginald Simmons, who initiated the program and is now its coordinator.

“The data so far is promising,” notes Simmons. “I will continue to assess results as the sample size grows to see if these trends hold up.”

Success Central is not a tutoring program. It instead focuses on helping students to navigate life issues that can get in the way of academic success, such as time management, study skills, and work-life balance. It also links students to learning, counseling, and wellness centers or other campus resources, if needed.  

Many students don’t finish college in four years, Simmons explains. Many work and some arrive on campus less prepared for the academic and emotional rigors of college life. For students of color, the feeling of not belonging can add to the stress.   

“Support is huge, based on the literature,” he says.  

Mentors — all juniors and seniors — are recruited by Simmons based on recommendations from faculty. They undergo a full day of training before they can start working with their fellow students. Requirements include a minimum 3.0 grade point average and passing the course in their major where students typically get stuck. For mentor Natania Zureiqi, who graduated in December with a degree in psychology and is now preparing for graduate school, that course was PSY 136 – Life Span Development. Her insights about the class are an asset in her work with one of her mentees, Errol McDonald, a freshman also majoring in psychology.

“I know you were nervous about that one,” she told McDonald during one of their weekly sessions in March. “It can really be overwhelming.”

McDonald has made major progress academically since he started working with Zureiqi. With her help, he has learned to manage a complicated family dynamic that previously interfered with his studies. His grades have gone from Ds and Fs to As and Bs. Zureiqi proudly recalls the text McDonald sent to her in December to let her know he’d passed a History final.

Simmons proposed the program in response to an innovation grant offered by former Provost Carl Lovitt for programs promoting student success. He knew criminology was the top major among Latinx students and the second most popular among African-American students. The retention and graduation rates among those students lags behind those of the general student population.

Success Central is modeled after a program adopted by Florida State University. Impressed by their results, Simmons and his faculty colleagues collaborated with Kathleen Shea Smith, head of advising at FSU at the time, to develop a retention program tailored to CCSU. Instead of paid, full-time counselors like FSU, their version called for training upper classmen to mentor freshmen and sophomores using college success coaching techniques.   

Each mentor is assigned 12 student mentees. Simmons, whose training is in clinical and community psychology, meets with them as a group every Friday to discuss their “caseloads” and offer feedback and support where needed. At a meeting in January he sat with six mentors and a team leader who’s a  recent graduate. Simmons listened intently as they took turns updating the group on the progress their mentees were making and obstacles they faced on and off campus. From break-ups and meltdowns to homelessness and self-doubt, they’ve seen it all and share strategies for helping their mentees cope.

Zureiqi, an aspiring school psychologist, says the benefit is not one sided. By teaching students how to problem-solve, she is learning something too.  Many of their issues are challenges she has faced. Her role as a mentor is to work with students to figure out what’s best for them, she says.  

“It’s about teaching kids to reframe challenges and strategize,” says Zureiqi. “We sit down. We take a breath and ask, ‘Why are you doing this? Take out your syllabus and prioritize.’ We’re kind of working the tasks with them and presenting options.”

Meet the mentors

Reginald Simmons, associate professor of criminology, meets every Friday with mentors and a graduate team leader participating in the Success Central program. Simmons, who developed and is now coordinator of the program, listens intently as the mentors, all juniors and seniors, discuss the problems and progress of their freshman and sophomore mentees.

Mentors in the program include Natania Zureiqi, who graduated in December with a degree in psychology and is preparing for graduate studies; Alex Castillo, a former mentor turned mentor team leader; junior Alice Da Cruz; and seniors, Andrea Valerio, Ana Urquijo Aldana, Macy Fenlason, and Lilabeth Soto. Their majors range from Criminology, Social Work, and Philosophy to Business and Exercise Science. Mentors work with 12 mentees each, with whom they meet weekly in virtual or in-person meetings.

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