The Mentor Center
Grad Students Help Undergrads Succeed Through One-on-One Support
Publication Date: 04/20/2020
Attending college presents an abundance of opportunities for learning, self-discovery and building life skills. But students may encounter challenges as well, running the gamut from text anxiety to time management issues to choosing the most suitable major.
Spandana Maitra says the support of a mentor helped her through a setback in her undergraduate years, when she was questioning her decision to become a biochemist.
"Having a mentor to talk with helped me realize I would be happier connecting with people in a helping profession than spending 60 hours a week working in a chemistry lab,'' said Maitra, who completed her bachelor's degree in Dallas and is earning a UT Tyler master's in clinical mental health counseling to become a licensed professional counselor.
Maitra is now giving back by assisting other students who face challenges, as a mentor in a student success initiative within the UT Tyler College of Education and Psychology.
The Mentor Center trains graduate counseling and psychology students to mentor CEP undergraduates, providing guidance tailored to each mentee's needs. Opening last spring, the center was developed by the Department of Psychology and Counseling in conjunction with the University's strategic plan, which includes student success as a major pillar.
While all classes are online due to COVID-19 precautions, the Mentor Center remains fully operational, meeting with students via Zoom.
"The Mentor Center provides targeted resources addressing a variety of student needs and issues,'' said Dr. Charles Barké, chair of psychology and counseling. "In terms of academic success, we find that only a small percentage of struggles are related to a student's capacity to learn. Challenges most often are related to noncognitive factors such as study habits, time management, anxiety, homesickness, or distractions such as relationship issues.''
Some students are referred to the center when identified by faculty as potentially benefiting from the services, while others elect to participate for extra credit. Each one is paired with a mentor, who uses evidence-based assessments to help identify strengths and challenges and provide individualized support.
Mentors interact with the students at least three times during the semester, providing academic coaching, advocacy and resources, including web-based modules supporting academic success. They may also recommend other campus resources such as the Tutoring Center, Writing Center, Math Learning Center or Office of Career Success.
"Our mentors are trained to identify all of the many resources that UT Tyler has available, that students may not be aware of,'' said Kristie Allen, Mentor Center coordinator. "Studying at the graduate level, mentors serve as role models and are typically closer in age to the undergraduates. If a student is having difficulty writing a term paper, for instance, their mentor may recommend a visit to the Writing Center. Students are sometimes more open to those recommendations coming from someone closer to their peer group.''
During regular semesters on campus, the first visit with a mentor is face-to-face. The mentee may choose other modes of communication for subsequent interactions.
"The Mentor Center is designed around the mentee's schedule,'' said Nancy Valverde, a mentor and clinical mental health counseling graduate student. "Their time is limited as students, so we may connect with them via phone, video chat or text messages to keep in touch and let them know we are here to support them and help them succeed.''
The Mentor Center's effectiveness is evaluated based on data collected from preliminary and follow-up student assessments, along with anonymous student feedback.
"We are still in the process of analyzing a lot of the data, but one really interesting finding so far is that, after students go through the Mentor Center, they are much more receptive to using sources of academic support,'' said Dr. Christopher Thomas, an assistant professor and educational psychologist who oversees the center's research component.
"We are also seeing a substantial increase in the use of effective learning strategies as a result of the Mentor Center,'' he said. "Instead of relying on study techniques such as re-reading textbook chapters or lecture notes, students are more likely to use retrieval practice and other more efficacious study methods.''
At the conclusion of the program, students anonymously answer questions about their experience. Asked to describe their overall experience, one student replied, "I thought it was great to have someone there to help me with whatever I needed. Just knowing I have someone I can ask for help ... about school really assured me.''
Maitra has witnessed firsthand the impact the center is making.
"Students come to college with high hopes and dreams and graduate school may be in their plans, but some students who experience challenges begin to doubt if they will reach their goals,'' she said. "I love seeing those students after they've gone through the Mentor Center and they're moving forward academically and feeling confident. It's great knowing that we were able to provide support that was helpful to them.''