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Undergraduate peer mentorship program helps U of T students 'make the best of every opportunity'

From left to right: Vicki Zhang with one of her mentees, Andrea Jeganathan, and fellow ecology and evolutionary biology peer mentorship program participants Kelsey Crocker and Maryam Wasim (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Second year is an exciting time for undergraduate students in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science. It’s when they begin their programs of study and settle into university life.

But navigating the myriad options available in each department and charting an academic course for their remaining undergraduate education – and beyond – can be daunting.

Brianna Lane experienced these challenges as a newly admitted student to the ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) program in September 2018.

“I was looking for help with sorting through the many opportunities U of T offers, and I wasn’t sure where to start,” says the Trinity College student.

Lane found support through the new EEB Peer Mentorship Program launched last fall. It connects second-year students with a third-, fourth- or fifth-year students to provide guidance and advice.

The program was born after the department ran a series of surveys and focus groups to learn more about students’ needs.

“We learned that students often felt a little bit lost making decisions about their time at U of T, especially in their first and second year,” said Asher Cutter, a professor and associate chair in the department who led the program’s development.

“We decided that one way to help bridge this gap was to create a formal but friendly way for upper-year students to interact with younger students to communicate all the cool experiences they’ve had – or wish they’d had – to give younger students a leg up in making the most of their experience.”

In its inaugural year, the program connected 36 students with 26 mentors. Participants met face-to-face at least four times throughout the year and attended workshops on such topics as: gaining research experience; choosing courses; applying for scholarships; and preparing for graduate school and careers. Both mentees and mentors earned a notation on their co-curricular record for participating in the program.

“Students told us about how they learned new writing and time management skills from their mentor, or strategies for making the most of the summertime, how best to realize plans for a future career, or the pros and cons of doing research or an international exchange,” said Cutter.

Lane signed up for the program seeking advice on upper-year courses and research opportunities. Her mentor, Cole Brookson, gave her insights on courses she was currently enrolled in as well as future courses she could benefit from. He also helped her gain research experience and find opportunities to pursue over the summer.

“The program has taught me how to maximize my time and potential at U of T,” Lane said. “I’ve been able to think more strategically about my undergrad, what I want to accomplish during this time, and where I want it to take me.”

Ryan Lane, a second-year student at University College, kept in touch with his mentor Vicki Zhang regularly throughout the year. In addition to assisting him with course selection and sharing department events, Zhang helped Lane line up a place in a faculty research lab in the department.

“Vicki has really gone above and beyond in helping me out and making sure I make the best of every opportunity,” Lane said. “The chance to join a lab with actual postdocs and master’s students has proven invaluable.”

But the program, which will return in the fall, hasn’t just helped mentees succeed – it has also been beneficial for student mentors as they complete their undergraduate studies and prepare for the next step.

“Being a mentor has shaped me into a positive role model, a better communicator and an encouraging and knowledgeable individual,” said Zhang, who is also at University College.

Brookson, who is at St. Michael's College, said being a mentor helped improve his interpersonal and communication skills, and that he would “absolutely” recommend the experience to other students.

“Engaging in a mentorship program is not only helpful to mentees,” he said, “but it can also be incredibly beneficial for mentors as it forces you to think critically about your experience and determine what has and has not allowed you to be successful in your journey so far.”

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