Faculty and staff mentors help first-year students ease into campus life

In the cramped confines of a dorm room, a roommate gets on your nerves. In the gym, you begin to question your high-school all-star status. And in the solitude of the library at night, you simply miss the warmth and familiarity of your friends and family. 

Dave Rousell and Nick Zwald

Mentor David Roussel, associate dean, & Nick Zwald ’13, mentee. Zwald says, “He was a great mentor. He met with us to check in to see how we were doing in our classes, and just to see how we were adapting to being in college. This program was very beneficial to my first-year experience…. I still talk to him today. Every time I see him, he makes sure I’m doing okay, and if I need anything, I can always talk to him.”

The transition from high school to college represents one of the most exciting yet daunting times of any young person’s life. No matter how large or small, a college campus presents an environment fraught with new challenges, new responsibilities, and new obstacles. Whether it’s homesickness, test anxiety, or just figuring out where the chemistry lab is located, freshmen carry a heavy load.

Already known for being a welcoming community, Saint Joseph’s College reaches out in a special way to incoming freshmen via the First-Year Enrichment program. Coordinated through The Academic Center (see below), the program provides a mentor for every new student.

“The main goal of the mentoring program is to make sure first-year students feel welcomed at Saint Joseph’s,” says Shanna Webster ’04, ’09, academic support coordinator and FYE program coordinator for The Academic Center. “We want students to know someone else besides the normal points of contact like faculty members, resident assistants, and advisors.”

Sr. Flynn and Regan Smith

Philosophy professor Sr. Patricia Flynn, Ph.D., RSM, mentor, & Regan Smiley Smith ’11, mentee. “My mentor reinforced the idea of advocating … it created a better foundation for myself as a freshman. Advocating not only helped me with my comprehension, but also created connections with teachers ... all four years,” says Smith.

A Saint Joseph’s mentor acts on behalf of 10 to 12 students during the year. Mentors come from all areas of campus such as the library, academic affairs, and food services – and include faculty, staff and top-ranking administrators.

“We are fortunate to have had so many people from different areas of campus, including our president, to serve as mentors,” Webster notes. “It says a lot about our community that people all the way to the top believe in what we’re doing.”

Joe Lee

President Joe Lee: “I found mentoring to be a gratifying experience. It was a great way for me to keep in touch with not only the mentees, but what was going on with the student body in general.”

Mentors meet with their students during orientation weekend and then again during critical points of the first semester including mid-term and finals week. They are readily available by phone or e-mail and most meet with students throughout the term. Students often have questions about academic issues, but mentors tackle other problems such as how to get involved in campus life, homesickness and roommate issues. Sister Patricia Flynn, assistant professor of philosophy, has served as a mentor for four years. She enjoys connecting with students and being a quick source of information for them. 

“As a Sister of Mercy, I am committed to the tradition of education that prompted our community to found Saint Joseph’s College almost 100 years ago,” she says. “I see myself as a bridge to help students do their best.”

Michelle Schweitzer

Michele Schweitzer, Information Technology office: “I’ve mentored for three years, and I’ve helped students with a number of issues from how to buy books to encouraging them to join intramurals for fun.”

Michelle Schweitzer works in the Information Technology department and has served as a mentor for three years. While she has helped students with routine problems like how to purchase books, she was touched by one student who was intimidated with collegiate-level sports.

“I encouraged him to try intramural sports,” she explains. “Not only did he make new friends, but now he’s on a team and competing at the college level.” 

Mentors receive a small stipend and can get reimbursed if they plan off-campus activities with their students. This year, says coordinator Webster, “We had someone plan a trip to the Fryeburg Fair, and someone else wants to take a ferryboat cruise out of Portland to explore the local area. In the past, mentors have organized pizza parties around final exams or the Art Walk in Portland.”

As the associate dean of the college, David Roussel enjoys stepping away from his administrative duties to talk with his students.

“Being a mentor really helps me understand and connect with the student experience as opposed to attending meetings and planning, which is what I do every day,” he says. “I like talking with them about their plans and aspirations.”

Mentors come from all areas of campus such as the library, academic affairs, and food services – and include faculty, staff and top-ranking administrators.

Most freshmen in the program appreciate and take advantage of the guidance and wisdom offered by mentors. Another mentor, Shelly Davis, director of library services, tells how she bumped into one of her students in a local restaurant.

“The girl introduced me to her parents saying, ‘This is my first-year mentor. I don’t know what I would do without her!’” Davis says. “It was a very gratifying moment for me.”

Rebecca Turek notes that mentoring face-toface with students is a plus for her, because she typically advises St. Joe’s online students, who are older adults living at a distance from campus. “People are relational and need support, connections, and others to survive and excel,” she says.

Tom Novak

Tom Novak, director of Career Services: “Students have a smoother transition and a better chance at completing their college education by taking part in the mentoring program.”

Tom Novak, a mentor for five years and director of the Career Services center, says “Students have a smoother transition and a better chance at completing their college education by taking part in the mentoring program.”

“This is an opportunity to give back while at the same time exercising some of the college’s core values,” says Kevin Paquette, director of the Academic Records office. “These values are not just words on a page, but ideals we put into action here at St. Joe’s.”

“I just want people to have as positive an experience at Saint Joseph’s as I had,” adds Kerry Racette ’07 who works in the Office of Admissions and is in her first year of mentoring. “It really helps a student feel at home when someone takes an interest in them outside of academics.” 

Shanna Webster and Lori Duxbury

First Year Enrichment program coordinator Shanna Webster ’04, ’09, mentor, and Lori Duxbury ’13, mentee. Duxbury reports, “My experience with first-year (mentoring) was awesome. She was always available and very helpful!”

A new addition to this fall’s program is the First Year in Photo component in which students document their first year on campus. This program is jointly organized with Bennett Morris, fine arts instructor, who serves as the project coordinator.

“It’s a pilot program where students submit digital photos and do a reflective piece on their experiences,” explains Vincent Kloskowski III ’95, assistant dean of the college and director of The Academic Center. 

By committing resources to new students, Kloskowski hopes students not only survive but thrive. More and more colleges offer mentoring, and it is increasingly seen as a way to retain students, particularly first-year students. Research shows it has the potential to reduce students’ feelings of marginality and can also provide important validation for first-generation college students.

Kloskowski also mentors a group of students and recalls one athlete who came to see him on the advice of a coach. The student was very capable of doing well in class but was floundering.

Patrick Hamilton and Vince Kloskowski

Patrick Hamilton ’12: “Vince … helped me a lot my freshman year. He kept me focused and organized, which is a big thing for me. I wouldn’t be the student or person I am now without Vince.”

“I’m really proud of our program here,” assistant dean Vince Kloskowski ’95 notes. “Our administration supports us, and we work together as a team. We won’t let our students fall between the cracks here.”

“He was a tough guy so I gave him the tough love that I felt he needed,” Kloskowski says, laughing. “If he can give his A game on the field, he can give his A game in class.” Kloskowski armed the student with valuable time management skills and, two days later, the student e-mailed to thank him for the honest, direct approach that got him back on track.

“One of the happiest days as an administrator was seeing him on stage at graduation receiving his diploma,” Kloskowski adds.

Thanks to the mentoring program, more students get the support and access to resources they need to succeed.“I’m really proud of our program here,” Kloskowski notes. “Our administration supports us, and we work together as a team. We won’t let our students fall between the cracks here at Saint Joseph’s. We live our mission and put our words into actions.”

The Academic Center

Saint Joseph’s College opened The Academic Center in 2004 with a six-year grant from the MELMAC Education Foundation to assist incoming freshmen with the transition to college life. With funding of $25,000 per year, The Academic Center offers tutoring, time management and study skills workshops, individual counseling, and mentoring through the Writing Center.

Vince Kloskowski ’95, assistant dean of the college and director of The Academic Center, notes that while working one-onone with faculty is essential for students and a foundation for a Saint Joseph’s education, the center adds another layer of academic support.

“We are an open-door advising center with extended hours for students,” he says. “There are Sunday hours and tutoring that takes place every weeknight late into the evening, and some tutoring sessions until 11 p.m. during peak periods based on student academic needs.” Kloskowski adds that Saint Joseph’s prides itself on being a small institution where students are not lost in the crowd.

In its first six years, The Academic Center has expanded its physical space and its programming to include an online academic alert system for faculty. This system tracks classroom attendance, student progress in class, and any obstacles a student may be facing academically, all coordinated electronically through the college’s database system. The TAC staff then follows up individually with students and offers the resource tools necessary to improve academic success.

“We call it direct advising,” says David Roussel, associate dean of the college. “When students are struggling, there’s an adult who’s aware of the situation and can give a student early assistance to get back on track. We promote every resource we have to assist students meet their goal of graduating.”