New mentorship program reaches out to remote first-years

By Will Anderson

The mentorship program, which began in earnest this week, includes 51 remote first years and plans to welcome incoming remote first-year Febs. (Sabrina Templeton)

Middlebury launched a peer mentorship program for first-year remote learners last Friday. The effort was spearheaded by Françoise Niyigena ’21, and mentoring began in earnest this week.

The program currently has six mentors serving 51 remote first years, with each mentor responsible for eight to nine students. Mentors’ duties include guiding first-year students during their transition to college life and connecting their cohort of students to the college — and to one another. Many mentors have served as Residential Life staff or MiddView Orientation leaders, giving them the experience to fill a role similar to that of a First Year Counselor.

While working as a program arrival leader for international students, Niyigena was assigned to a group of remote international students. During international student orientation, two parents attending an information session inquired about what plans were in place to ensure that remote students would feel included and able to engage with other students outside class. No such plans were in place, and a myriad of other challenges for new students quickly became apparent to Niyigena: a confusing add/drop period, a lack of study buddies, navigating remote office hours, an unclear process for joining student organizations and the task of applying for funding opportunities, among others. 

“During orientation, we were not necessarily prepared to support them with things like class registration,” Niyigena said. “I spent extra time with my group, but I was kind of concerned. I kept asking them, ‘Do you have anyone else you’re working with?’ And they would say, ‘Not really, besides meeting with advisors.’”

After consulting the directors of the International Student & Scholar Services office, Niyigena drafted a proposal for the mentor program — modeled after the First Year Counselor program for on-campus students — and brought it to the SGA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, on which she serves as a co-director. The proposal was then sent to the Student Activities Office. 

“We all deserve to feel included and supported, whether we’re on campus or off campus. The fact that classes would be remote was known for many months but there was no support system in place was really frustrating. That’s all we’re advocating for,” Niyigena said. 

The proposal fell into bureaucratic limbo, stalled by a lack of funds, but following Professor Jessica Holmes’ appointment as Student Life Advisor for Remote Learners, the mentorship program moved much more quickly toward approval. 

Holmes identified several challenges many remote students face, including a lack of reliable internet access, the inability to attend in-person events and large time differences that can make it difficult to attend even virtual events. 

“There are fewer opportunities for spontaneous and casual interaction, so some remote students may feel socially isolated. We are hoping to create more virtual events specifically designed with our remote learners in mind,” Holmes said.

While the program currently serves first-year students, it will be expanded to include any incoming remote first-year Febs. Current remote first years will remain in mentor groups regardless of the modality they choose for the spring semester.