Mentors help freshmen adjust to campus life

November 29, 1993|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

Western Maryland College freshmen have gotten by this semester with a little help from their friends in the college's new peer mentoring program.

"I think [the program] is helpful to them because they will always have someone they can trust, someone they have confidence in," said LaVita Westbrook, a sophomore environmental biology major and peer mentor at the college. "Even if we are busy, we will make time for [them], that's how we want them to feel . . . that they can trust us, more like a sibling or something."

Barb Disharoon, assistant dean of academic affairs and the program's coordinator, said the project provides freshmen with a resource missing from the other WMC adjustment programs.

"We have had mentoring-type programs, but this is the first to involve all the new students," Ms. Disharoon said. "Programs in the past have focused on resident students. This includes transfer students as well."

Each freshman and transfer student was assigned to one of the 31 upperclassman peer mentors, many of whom served as orientation leaders for the college the first weekend in September, Ms. Disharoon said. Most mentors have 10 students each.

"It makes everyone feel a part of Western Maryland College," the dean said. "It makes them feel like contributing members of the college rather than just [people] coming and going to class."

Donielle Long, a member of Ms. Westbrook's mentoring group, said the program helped her adjust to college life without intruding on her space to learn and grow.

"She's [Ms. Westbrook] not telling you what to do. She's giving you suggestions for what she thinks is best," Ms. Long said. "You are trying to become an adult now coming into college, and for me, I'm trying to be mature and make my own decisions and I don't need anyone to baby me."

All mentors give advice to their groups on subjects such as hTC stress management, professors, campus activities and organizations and classes, but many go above the call of duty.

Ms. Westbrook sent Halloween candy to her charges, held a pizza party and sends notes to her group members, even the ones who don't attend the meetings.

Some mentors, such as sophomore math major Kathy Gaston, do things with their groups that require little more than picking up a knife and fork, chatting or just hanging out.

"Dinner. We do dinner," said Nathaniel Winegar, a freshman in Ms. Gaston's mentoring group.

"It's generally the best time to get everyone together, when everyone's free," Ms. Gaston said. "We also went to see 'A Few Good Men.' "

As she talked, Ms. Gaston pulled out chocolate cupcakes and soda to "not celebrate" the birthday of another group member, freshman Brad Zisser.

"You can't have a party for one and not all of them," Ms. Gaston said. "So we'll have sort of an un-birthday party."

Both Ms. Gaston and Ms. Westbrook said they have a core group of students who attend the monthly get-togethers.

Most of Ms. Gaston's five regulars -- Mr. Winegar, Mr. Zisser, Dan O'Kelly, Elias Rosen and Pete Fuller -- believe the program was more helpful in the beginning, when new students needed help making friends.

"I think it is great that we had it for the first weekend because I knew nobody here," Mr. Zisser said. "I had never even heard of this school until, like, May.

"But having six or seven people to go with in big groups in the beginning, it gave you a way of being able to meet people," he continued. "Basically these are my core group of friends. I met my girlfriend in the group. It was a just a foundation to meet people."

Others, like Mr. O'Kelly, recognized the program's merits a little late.

"At first I just slept through it, I just missed all the events because I just didn't think it was me. I think that was true for most of these guys," said Mr. O'Kelly as the other men nodded in agreement.

"But as time went on, I saw what I could get out of it, I took advantage of it. It became very useful."

Ms. Long found her mentor's account of class registration particularly enlightening.

"I remember LaVita was telling me this story about how she had to sit outside at four o'clock in the morning trying to get into the building [to register for classes]," Ms. Long said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Oh, my Lord, I hope I don't have to do that.' "

Although the program works well, Ms. Westbrook and Ms. Gaston agree it would be easier for all freshmen if their peer mentor were also their orientation leader -- the person who helped the freshman adjust the weekend before classes started.

"Since I was just a peer mentor, there was a problem where I didn't know things about all 10 of my [group members]," Ms. Westbrook said.

"If I was an OL [orientation leader], I think it would have helped out because I'd get to know them in the very beginning. I'd get to see who they are, and get them to feel more comfortable with me from the beginning," she added.

"They [administrators] asked the OLs to do it mainly so it would be a continuation, so you stayed with your group," said Ms. Gaston, who was an OL. "But there are peer mentors who are not OLs and they have had a lot of trouble keeping their groups together because they didn't have them that first week."

Otherwise, neither mentor has any complaints about the program.

They both realize there is nothing lonelier than a freshman on his first day of college -- except maybe two freshman on their first day, both too scared to break the ice.

Enter the peer mentor, the ice breaker with a commitment.

"It's what you put into it," Ms. Gaston said. "It really depends on how much of yourself you are willing to put in to it."

"It's all you," Ms. Westbrook said. "They [the administration] give you suggestions on how to handle it, but it is really what you decide to do that makes the difference."

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