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Mentoring program propels multicultural students to graduation

Multicultural students support each other through peer mentoring at St. Catherine University.
Multicultural students support each other through peer mentoring at St. Catherine University.
Photo by St. Catherine University

St. Catherine University is one of four institutions receiving the 2011 Lee Noel — Randi Levitz Retention Excellence Award, an award recognizing innovative campus retention programs that help students reach their goals and persevere through graduation.

The award will be presented to the Office of Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS) for the Peer Mentor Program (PMP) at St. Kate’s — a program that creates community among students of color in order to promote academic, emotional and social success for them in their first year of college. The program pairs first-year students of color who are attending college for the first time with peer mentors, or students of color entering their second or third year at St. Kate’s.    

Multicultural appeal

Youa Lee ’12 was hesitant to join the Peer Mentor Program when she learned about it as an incoming student. One of eight children in a Hmong family, Lee was already making a decision no one in her family had made before her, by opting to attend college.

Lee was born in Thailand and emigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1993. Though she considered herself very shy, she was drawn to the program after she attended an event hosted by MIPS during her first fall at St. Kate’s. She said the MIPS gathering was warm and informal and she wanted more.

Lee was paired with a peer mentor who showed her around the University, making sure she knew where to find campus resources and when to apply for financial aid. Having that connection, she said, made it much easier to navigate college life.

“Just having that person there all the time was really, really helpful,” says Lee. “It was really like stress-relief.”

A home away from home

Donna Hauer, director of MIPS, says the program was developed in order to create a structure of support for students of color.

St. Kate's leads Minnesota private colleges with 26.7 percent of students of color, attracting many students from the Hmong, African immigrant and Latino populations.

Hauer says these students need to see themselves in the curriculum and need to know they can find support in order to feel at home in an institution.

“Research says that one of the biggest ways that students stay in school is, if within a certain amount of time, they make a personal connection with someone — either student, staff or faculty,” says Hauer.

Chuayi Yang, assistant director of MIPS, says students are signing on to the program because it helps them form meaningful connections in both one-on-one and group environments. PMP events have included social events such as ice cream socials, spa nights and off-campus trips, as well as skill-building activities such as financial literacy workshops and leadership seminars.

“The program's vision is to make sure that mentees can connect with others and build their own circle of support on campus, which is key to their success at St. Kate's,” says Yang. “It continues to soar because, at the core of it, everyone wants to create a community that is inclusive of all our struggles and stories.”

Inspiring leadership

Students in the program have gone on to serve in leadership roles and win prestigious awards from St. Kate’s, including the Dean of Students Award.

“Every year, the majority of my mentors are former mentees — this is not coincidental,” says Yang. “Their decision stems from the powerful and positive impact PMP has had on their experience at St. Kate's. All of them have expressed that their mentors have inspired them to consider guiding and mentoring future students, just as they were supported during their first year at St. Kate's.” 

Hauer received this feedback too, when she asked peer mentors why they decided to take on the role.

“They almost unanimously said, ‘If it weren’t for my peer mentor, I don’t know if I’d still be in school,’” says Hauer.

Lee  is one of those students who became a peer mentor after being a mentee. She entered St. Kate’s as a nursing major and in her second year, she mentored other students entering the nursing program.

“Even though we come from different backgrounds, I know that we have similar feelings coming to college,” says Lee. “From my experience — being scared to come to college and ask questions — I can help other people because I’ve been through that.”

Through the Peer Mentor Program, students also build relationships that last throughout their college career. 

“Even though we’re not mentees or mentors anymore, every time I see them, we still have that connection,” says Lee. “It doesn’t just last for a period of time. It’s a part of me, the whole experience.”

Exceeding expectations

Since its inception in 2004, the Peer Mentor Program saw retention rates from the fall to winter semester ranging from 90 to 100 percent, for both mentees and mentors. In the academic years spanning 2008-09 and 2009-10, the program yielded higher retention rates for mentees than the overall cohort retention rate — a rare statistic nationally and a first at St. Kate’s.

The fall to fall retention rate for mentees was 96 percent in 2008-09 — an increase of 24.6 percentage points from the previous year. The fall to fall retention rate of mentees remained respectable at 86.7 percent in 2009-10. St. Catherine University also raised the overall retention rate for first-year students from 77.8 percent in 2008-09, to 83.7 percent in 2009-10, demonstrating the University’s strength in both overall retention and retention through the Peer Mentor Program.

St. Catherine University will be formally recognized for these exemplary retention efforts at the 2011 National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention, July 26-28, 2011, in Denver, Colo.

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July 11, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Leadership, Students