It started as a conversation between senior biology majors one day during class. Aimee Wyrick, chair of the department of biology and the class’ professor, put down her lecture notes and looked each student in the eye.
“Forget today’s lecture,” Wyrick told the class. “Today I want to hear from you and learn from your experiences. What can we do to make the biology program better?”
As the laptops closed and notebooks dropped into backpacks, the students began to share. It became clear after a few students spoke that a common thread was the struggle as freshmen to navigate classes and post-college plans.
“College can be complicated, even for the smartest student,” says Sabrina Mostoufi, 2018 biology graduate, who was part of the brainstorming class. “We all realized we’d had similar struggles navigating classes and post-college plans, even into our second and third years. This led us to the idea that it would be helpful if older students could act as mentors to freshmen to help point them in the right direction as they’re starting out in college.”
The hour-long brainstorm session was eye-opening, revelatory, and productive. At the end of the day, Wyrick was convinced a biology major mentorship program was both advantageous and necessary.
“The idea was to pair seniors with freshmen in their same track,” says Wyrick. “For example, pre-med with pre-med, pre-dent with pre-dent, etc. That way the senior mentors have already ‘been there, done that,’ and can offer more productive advice to their mentees.”
The students felt senior mentors would offer advice on which courses to pair and study tips for specific classes, insights on what each teacher expects and their testing styles, encourage younger students to take advantage of opportunities to learn about graduate school, and assist them in completing grad school applications.
But it would also be about relationships.
“Having a connection to upperclassmen will broaden a new student’s social horizons,” explains Jefferson Richards, a senior biology major who will be among the department’s first mentors during the 2018-19 school year. “It will make them feel more at home not only in the department, but at PUC in general.”
Studies have shown that students entering college today experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and fear for the future than any other generation before. In fact, the 2015 National College Health Assessment survey reported that nearly one in six college students had been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety.
Biology faculty and seniors hope that a program such as this will help alleviate some of that stress and anxiety by connecting people and fostering a community that supports each other.
John Duncan, professor of biology who helped set the program in motion, feels students in the mentorship program will get a head start on utilizing department resources that it may have taken other students several quarters to do.
“We do our best to advise and assist students from Day One,” he says, “but often what professors say goes by unnoticed in the beginning. Students prefer to listen to other students when it comes to which classes to take when, where to get help with coursework, and general hacks for college life on the PUC campus. Our mentors could be a bridge between new students, faculty, and the resources they need.”
The entire process of developing the BIOneer program was student-led with guidance from several faculty members. Mostoufi was part of the initial class discussion that birthed the mentorship program idea, and came to each brainstorm session following. She attended every planning meeting and helped create a mentor training book and contract, and contributed to the decision on what to name the program--a play on words related to the PUC mascot, Pioneer Pete.
“A program like this has the potential to be really valuable,” Mostoufi says. “It offers students a chance for leadership, mentoring, and connecting the students in the biology department across the years, even after we’ve graduated.”
Richards became excited about BIOneers because he had, in fact, experienced something similar, though unofficial.
“I had several upperclassmen mentors when I entered the department of biology as a freshman,” he says. “The advice they gave me on study habits, class scheduling, and life in general was crucial to my success as a freshman. I want to provide to new students the same experience and strong foundation I was lucky enough to have here.”
BIOneer mentors are carefully selected by biology faculty members from applications of students intending to be present for a full academic year, with a willingness to commit at least 1-2 hours per week to their mentorship. The applications also require a statement of intent and a short autobiography of the applicant, including the story of a time they could have used advice from an older and more experienced college student.
“While reviewing applications for the program, I was very impressed by the eagerness of the applicants to serve as mentors,” says Floyd Hayes, professor of biology. “We are blessed to have many top-notch students in terms of both their character development and academic credentials, and I am confident our BIOneers will provide positive role models for our younger students. I am also optimistic that their volunteerism will enhance the academic success of our students.”
Mentors are expected to abide by the program handbook, which includes outlined principles of mentoring from the Commission on the Role and Preparation of Mentor Teachers, an explanation of the mentor’s role from the Mentoring Institute, as well as information on intercultural communication, strategies and considerations for initial conversations with proteges, and a mentorship plan and agreement.
Wyrick hopes to build this program into one that extends even beyond graduation, allowing former BIOneer mentors to become alumni mentors for senior mentors as they mentor freshmen students.
“I would love to see this year’s senior mentors carry the torch into their careers, mentoring biology students from outside the program as they plan for their futures,” Wyrick says. “So we’re being intentional about how we establish this program, with long-term goals as well as short-term needs in mind.”
As she prepares to enter University of Oregon’s biology Ph.D. program in genetics this fall, Mostoufi hopes that someday she will yet have the opportunity to be a biology mentor for PUC students.
“I formed many casual mentoring friendships with underclassmen while I was at PUC,” she says, “so I love seeing my alma mater encouraging those kinds of friendships in a really helpful and rewarding way for both the mentor and the protege.”
If you will be a new student in the biology department and are interested in joining the BIOneer program as a protege, email email@example.com.