The word “mentor” typically conjures an image of someone older, an individual in a leadership position who shepherds a young person.
Leave it to FIU students—and their counterparts at institutions around the country—to break the mold. Increasingly, they are assisting peers through organized programs. The goal: help newcomers navigate university life and stay the course.
“What better mentor than someone living that experience right now?” asks Claudia Biscardi. She runs a program in the Office of International Student & Scholar Services that matches seasoned international students with those just coming in. The students’ similarities in age and life experience, she says, make the arrangement ideal. “They are on the same page.”
A hand to those who follow
Sherwin Hilton Jr. turned his difficult adjustment into a positive for someone else. “There were a lot of things I didn’t understand about the differences between the Bahamas and America,” says the civil engineering major, “and I had to stumble along and figure it out myself.” That rocky start prompted him to volunteer as a sophomore to assist an incoming fellow Bahamian. He gave her a campus tour and shared a few meals out. He explained how to get a Florida driver’s license and suggested she de-stress with free chair massage at the Student Health Center. Remembering the questions and loneliness he once faced, he says,” “I just wanted to help in any way I could.”
As with Hilton and his mentee, students in mentorship programs often get paired around a shared background—country of origin or racial or ethnic heritage—and less frequently around a common major. Usually the mentor is not much further along in his or her studies than the mentee. That fact alone can inspire students who find starting at FIU daunting, particularly those who are the first in their families to attend college.
“They get that role model that can work with them and show them what they can be doing in the next two to three years,” says Jeffrey McNamee MA ’03. He sponsors a program begun by African-American young men who saw many of their brothers exit the university without degrees. The group aims to provide successful examples to those who don’t always see others like themselves on campus. Simply put, McNamee says, “They need a little encouragement and guidance to maximize their potential.”
Leave no soldier behind
Army veteran Israel Najarro, 28, looked to a peer to help him transition to university life. Once responsible for gathering intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan, he found FIU a challenge after eight years in the military. Difficult courses in programming and advanced math gave him trouble. (He has since switched his major to public administration.) An older student, he felt discouraged about his career outlook.
“It made me at peace to have someone to talk these issues out with, a fellow veteran who knows the types of things I’m going through,” Najarro says. He relied on Alma Rosario ’15, MA ’16. The former Air Force logistics technician, sidelined by injury in Iraq, already had an undergraduate degree from FIU and was completing a master’s in disaster management when the two met at FIU’s Veteran and Military Affairs center.
“If I was feeling a certain way about a situation, or school was dragging me down, she was always there. She would be the sounding board,” Najarro says. “I believe her when she says she understands.”
Read more about mentoring: FIU students make a difference in local youngsters’ lives
Mentored by vets herself, Rosario took up the mission of helping other soldiers-turned-students forge their paths when she became president of FIU’s chapter of the national Student Veterans Association.
“Every veteran is unique. Some have all these ambitions, and you just have to stop and say, ‘You have to take care of yourself first,’ make sure they’re in the right state of mind to take on school,” Rosario says. She impresses upon peers that lessons learned in the military can transfer to educational, career and leadership goals. Her passion comes in part, she says, from wishing her own brother had had such support. He committed suicide upon returning from Afghanistan.
And while veterans have mentored one another informally for years, the SVA recently started a bonafide program. Any former or active duty soldier enrolled at FIU can sign up. The organization tracks participants, but the type and frequency of interaction will remain up to those involved.
“In the grand scheme of things, that’s what mentorship really should be,” Najarro says. “You don’t have to have set times or do all these [scheduled] things. It’s just when your mentee needs assistance, you help him to the best of your ability. If you can be there, you’re already a great mentor.” ♦