Mitch Messner '15 came to Concordia to achieve two things: to run and to prepare for medical school. But a difficult roommate experience left Messner feeling disconnected. His first semester on campus, he wasn’t sure Concordia was the right fit.
Fortunately, Messner found a place to express his concerns: the Office of Student Success and Retention. There he was introduced to resources to get better connected and was able to get a new roommate for second semester.
Now a recent graduate, he ran for the Concordia cross country and track teams and has been accepted to two medical schools – the University of North Dakota and Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. He’s also spent the last three years as a peer mentor.
“I wanted to be an example of a person who doesn’t meet their best friend freshman year,” says Messner of Hutchinson, Minn.
The peer mentoring program at Concordia is a specialized service of the Office of Student Success and Retention. The program, started in 2007, provides personal support and guidance to first-year and transfer students. Peer mentors are upperclass students trained and committed to helping students achieve their personal and academic goals.
“Some of the best mentors of students are students themselves,” says Michael Reese, director of Student Success and Retention.
Nationwide, as many as one in three first-year students don’t return for their sophomore year. The reasons vary – from family finances to loneliness to academic struggles.
Research shows that strong academic and social connections keep students engaged and eventually lead to graduation. How a student feels about a college often determines whether that student will stay, says Dr. George Kuh, a leader in the field of student retention who is recognized for his work developing the National Survey of Student Engagement.
Concordia’s peer mentors played a vital role in helping Gaya Shivega '15, Nairobi, Kenya, feel welcome on campus. As an international student, the decision to come to Concordia was about more than just what she read about on the college website; she wanted to know that people on campus would support her.
“My peer mentor had been to Kenya and had a little bit of experience with Kenyan cooking,” says Shivega. “When I came to Concordia, I had issues adjusting to American food and tastes. My mentor opened up her apartment to me so I could cook and eat in, and we would share meals.”
The experience inspired Shivega to become a peer mentor herself.
Some of the best mentors of students are students themselves. – Michael Reese
Peer mentors are hand-selected for each new student based on gender, interest and major. They introduce themselves to their mentees before the new students even arrive on campus in the fall.
After the excitement of Orientation winds down, mentors go “dorm storming,” to make their first campus connections in the residence halls. This is the time when feelings of homesickness can creep in for new students. The shock of leaving home, exploring newfound independence and heightened responsibility can be overwhelming, and may lead to thoughts of leaving college.
“We let them know that we’re here for them,” says peer mentor Annika Strand '16, Grand Forks, N.D.
Throughout the year, mentors send first-year students reminders that someone is rooting for them and their success.
Shivega says she does this through random acts of kindness, by sending notes or chocolates to their campus mailbox, or by emailing entertaining cat videos.
Face-to-face time is also important to the mentoring relationships, whether it’s visits in the residence halls, having lunch in Anderson Commons, grabbing a coffee, taking a walk to Dairy Queen or even going to a Zumba workout together.
Peer mentors also meet with drop-ins to the Office of Student Success and Retention as late as 9:30 each evening.
Not only are the peer mentor relationships good for students, they’re a tremendous resource for the college, Reese says.
Since its inception, Concordia’s peer-to-peer program has been a great success. In 2006, first-year student retention rates hovered at 79 percent. Those rates jumped to 83 percent during the program’s first year and have remained between 83 and 85 percent ever since.
Now Messner can’t say enough about the program. “It’s so important to have a strong connection to campus and make Concordia your home,” he says. “Ultimately, you’ll remember the connections you make, not the tests you take.”
Laura Caroon '06 is a content strategist at Concordia College.