Peer mentoring in IEFX paying dividends for first-year students

Mike Koon

The Illinois Engineering First-year Experience (IEFX) continues to expand and refine as it pledges to help those students integrate into both the College of Engineering and university environment. One of the most successful initiatives has been the addition of the mentoring program, now in its second year.

Junior ELA Nikita Parikh set up a mentoring meeting for her first-year students with Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram Research.
Junior ELA Nikita Parikh set up a mentoring meeting for her first-year students with Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram Research.
 Freshman engineering students are split into groups of 20 based on their major for ENG 100. The required introductory course is led by junior and senior Engineering Learning Assistants (ELAs) and meets three times per week for the first four weeks of the fall semester. The course gives students an overview of what to expect, helps get students acclimated and includes a mini project within their major.

“It’s so unique and so special because this is a chance to tell these freshmen that the world is their oyster,” said junior electrical and computer engineering major Nikita Parikh from India, who led one of the classes this year. “Because you’re here at Illinois, you can do anything. It’s important to do that because some students come in and don’t set their goals high enough. Illinois is such a vast engineering school with so may resources, but it is difficult to discover that unless someone tells you.”

Starting last year, those ELAs took on the added role of mentor where they continue to have contact with their students after those four weeks to help them navigate their first year at Illinois. The ELAs communicate with them electronically and meet with them, either one-on-one or as part of a small or large group.

“Engineering 100 is only four weeks,” noted IEFX coordinator Michelle Adeoye. “That is a really short time for all the things we want to accomplish. Since the ELA can be a vital part of a student’s first-year experience, we wanted to make sure that the relationship continued. It didn’t just stop because the course stopped.”

“The motivation for having mentors is that we know relationship and community are key for students who are in transition,” said assistant dean Bruce Litchfield. “The mentor is a key dimension of that community. It’s powerful for the mentor as well to connect with someone and be in the role of giving back and helping someone else who is in the same position that they were a few years before.”

“The biggest difference from last year is raising the expectation of the program,” Adeoye added. “We did a focus group of first-year students. They indicated that they had a more a positive view of the College and of their own studies when they had a better relationship with their ELA.”

The benefits go both ways. The program includes about 100 ELAs. In the first-year of expanding the role into mentoring, about 150 juniors and seniors applied. This year, that number was about 350. IEFX relies heavily on the departments for recommendations because they want students who are active outside the classroom.

Junior Tim Chan signed on to mentor because he had such as positive experience with his ELA as a freshman. Chan chose to major in civil engineering, but was considering changing during his freshman.

“He convinced me that civil was right for me,” Chan said. “He told me all the things civil engineers do and put me in touch with all the right people. After that I decided that civil was the way I wanted to go. I wanted to be an ELA because my ELA walked me through it the entire year.”

Chan’s impact on his freshman students was demonstrated in him scheduling an additional meeting of his class three weeks after Engineering 100 completed to discuss scheduling, time management and the upcoming career fair. Of his 20 students, 19 showed up voluntarily and the other missed just because of a job interview.

Chan’s story is not isolated. There were two ELAs who offered up their apartment for a pizza study night and figured that about 10 students would show up and instead 40 did. 

Parikh has set up a coffee meeting with some graduate students so that freshmen could make more connections, led a tour of the bell tower, and took them to a few research labs.

“The cool thing is that although these professors are super busy people, they’re happy to meet with freshmen,” Parikh said. “When I was a freshman, I expressed early on my interest in research. My ELA told me about the resources and how to get involved. Because I started that early, I have done it every semester.”

Adeoye has encouraged students to hold office hours in the IEFX office and she said freshmen regularly come by to get tips on resumes, find out what student organizations to join or simply to chat.

“In soliciting feedback, we have had students indicate that they want to be just like their ELAs,” Adeoye said. “I have seen the return on investment on the ELA side as well. When those students were asked what they liked about their year, the vast responses were about mentoring. It’s really encouraging to see how they want to invest in first-year students.”

“I thought it was a wonderful experience and something you can put on our resume and talk about at a job fair,” Chan said.

“To be able to make a positive impact on anyone in the college makes you feel nice and like you’re giving back to Illinois because you just get so much from here,” Parikh said. “If I could tell every junior and senior to apply and do this, I would.”

As far as what’s next for the program, Adeoye said, “I feel like we have a good template. We are going to focus more on making sure the students receive adequate training and would love to see those relationships continue into the spring semester.”

“The way it fits into the overall philosophy of helping students get off to a good start is that once connected with that older student, the ELA mentor is someone new students can go back to again and again,” Litchfield concluded. “We get feedback from experienced students saying that they still consult their ELA. It’s an important connection and it’s even more important because it begins during those first few weeks of the transition to college.”