On its surface, the Circles of Success Mentoring Program seems like the result of long-term planning aimed at student success. After all, the Office of the Associate Provost of Undergraduate Education (APUE) and the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative (NSSC) are both acutely focused on student success as a broadly-defined set of imperatives designed to help every MSU undergraduate persist, thrive, and graduate.
But Circles of Success is not the endpoint of a meticulously crafted, months-long planning process.
The new mentoring program is the result of what are arguably greater credits to the institution: the ability to make a rapid change for the good of students; the willingness of hundreds of staff and students to rally around our newest Spartans; the commitment to keep as many current Spartans working and learning as possible.
Circles of Success emerged from many individuals working together toward clearly defined priorities, a little synchronicity, and a lot of eleventh-hour collaboration.
Genyne Royal, assistant dean for student success initiatives & director of the NSSC, explains it like this:
“On Tuesday, President Stanley gave the notice we were all going to be staying home. On Wednesday, one of my neighborhood directors, Scotty Secrist, called me and said he thought this was a great opportunity to do some things around retention and persistence.”
Royal told Secrist she thought his ideas sounded great, but there were five neighborhood directors, and about 9500 incoming students. They would need to talk with the other directors about what was realistic, given the almost non-existent period before thousands of new students began their MSU experience.
At that moment, Mark Largent, associate provost of undergraduate education, called Royal with a burning question: What could they do to support the hundreds of Resident Assistants, Intercultural Aides, and Assistant Community Directors who would have been employed in the dorms?
“I told Mark, ‘I am literally having a conversation about this on the other line. I have an idea,” says Royal.
The Circles of Success Mentoring Program was born: each incoming student would be paired with both a peer mentor and a professional staff mentor. These mentors engage new students through weekly social activities, student success chats, one-on-one check-ins, and group messaging; their job is to connect these new students with resources, give tips on studying, acquaint them with student organizations, and generally work to make them feel welcome.
Royal says people from Student Affairs and Residence Education and Housing Services (REHS) have been kind enough to thank her for making the program happen—she is quick to dispel the notion that this is her doing.
“I’ve had to say, ‘Listen, if you all weren’t thoughtful enough to try and do something for our staff in the residence halls, and graceful enough to work on the specifics with us, it wouldn’t have happened.’ It’s really been a team effort,” says Royal. “The neighborhood directors have been working really hard to pull all of the pieces together. Residence Education and Housing Services (REHS) and Student Affairs have also been huge partners in this.
“I wish I could take the credit, but that wouldn’t be fair or appropriate,” says Royal with a laugh.
A Holistic Model of Student Success
As much as the pandemic has caused inconvenience and pain, it has also necessitated reimagining student success at MSU. Royal sees the pain students are experiencing, but she is also optimistic about how many at the university have come together quickly, nimbly, and stridently to reframe how they support students, particularly in terms of the new mentor roles.
“It’s ideal for the Resident Assistants, Intercultural Aides, and Assistant Community Directors to be doing this work. They’ve already been such huge partners,” says Royal. “This semester they’ll have direct one on one contact with incoming students in ways they haven’t in the past. We’re hoping this is going to give them some skills and understanding that they’ll carry into their roles when we eventually return to campus.”
Previously, Resident Assistants and Intercultural Aides were focused on supporting students within a place-based mindset, such as a residence hall or neighborhood., the mentor program will have RAs and ICAs thinking about academic and social challenges new students may have, and what resources are available to them regardless of where they are living during their first year at MSU.
“When they go back to those roles in the residence halls, they’ll go back to thinking about their fellow students as individuals and learners,” says Royal.
“I’m excited about the Assistant Community Directors in particular. A number of the ACDs working with us are from the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) and Human Resources and Labor Relations programs. We’ve been in conversations with College of Education faculty to see how we can align the experiences they’re going to have as ACDs with the content that they’re getting in the classroom, so they’re getting that scholar-practitioner alignment, which is central to how we do the work in the NSSC.”
Royal says the pandemic situation has given the NSSC and APUE new ways to think about partnerships with the colleges, as well.
“When Mark Largent said he wanted to do this, several colleges were already planning something similar,” says Royal. “The biggest challenge we have, and this is one I will take every day of the week, is to create a space and opportunity for everyone who is interested in engaging. This has given us the opportunity to reignite our role in the institution for everyone.”