On an afternoon in late September 2021, Victor Rosas ’22 shuffled index cards around on a conference table – but he wasn’t studying for an exam or writing a research paper. Without fully realizing it yet, he was changing lives.
Rosas was matching mentors to mentees for a new peer mentor program offered by the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI) that aims to help first-year or transfer students from underrepresented or underserved groups navigate Cornell, find community and opportunities, and succeed academically.
“Students from marginalized identities don’t always have those established networks, that knowledge in their families about what they need to do to reach their goals,” said Rosas, student mentor leader and member of the program planning committee. “We wanted to establish a network so that first-year students would have that point person and that support from people who have just been through it.”
The program, with a pilot class of 13 mentors and 14 mentees, was a resounding success. Mentors helped their mentees find opportunities – research positions in labs, membership in pre-professional fraternities and student clubs, for example – and helped them navigate both academic and social challenges. In post-program surveys, mentees reported feeling better connected to opportunities and community and that the mentor program helped them succeed academically. But mentees said the most significant impact of the program was the deep relationships they built and the moral support they received from peers with shared experiences.
“It was like I had an older sister here,” said Devyn Bryant ’25. “It was easy to open up to her about different things, even outside academics. And just having an upperclassman, especially who was Black, who has been through Cornell, helped me see into my own future here.”
“My mentor really helped calm my worries,” said Indira Thompson ’25. “It’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough or moving fast enough or doing the right thing. He always told me to take a deep breath and reminded me that I got into this school for a reason. It was like getting your confidence back after each meeting.”
Plans for the mentor program began in December 2019, with collaboration between OADI leadership and a group of 18 OADI student leaders. “The vision and the values of this program have always been centered on community, connection, deep listening and belonging,” said Steph Cowling-Rich, assistant director of OADI and adviser for the program.
Mentors and mentees met informally at least once a month, often with more frequent check-ins. Cowling-Rich sent the pairs weekly reflection prompts – many oriented around mindfulness and stress management. Multiple events brought the entire program together, and mentors participated in monthly trainings with Rosas and Cowling-Rich, which mentors said served as its own source of community.
“Mentoring my student really made me think about what I needed when I was in her position,” said Fátima Martínez ’24, a psychology major in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I felt like I understood better the impacts the pandemic had on me as a student, and then I was able to think about what I could do to support her.”
“It made me think about the people who have helped shape me. I don’t know where I’d be without them,” said Bianca Espejo ’23, a double major in statistics and Italian in the College of Arts and Sciences. “There was no better place or group where I could give back and play that role for someone else, especially helping with freshman year at Cornell, because I really struggled.”
Mentors and mentees were able to meet in-person for most of the year, but many participants said the impact of the program seemed greater after a year of mostly remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My senior year of high school was kind of virtual and pandemic riddled,” said mentee Shelby Williams ’25. “I knew I would need some kind of support system at Cornell. I feel like Cornell is made accessible by these little pockets of community, and having an upperclassman mentor who was sort of obligated to make sure I was doing well – I really appreciated that structure.”
Mentors were all involved in one of OADI’s signature programs, such as the Arthur O. Eve Opportunity Programs, the Pre Professional Programs and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, and had to apply and interview for the program. The primary thing they looked for in applicants, Rosas said, was that they truly wanted to mentor.
“We were able to tell mentees that the mentors had been vetted – they want to meet you and be involved in your life,” he said. “When everyone showed up for the first in-person event, there wasn’t any wariness. You saw a community of people wanting to connect with each other. We were all really hungry for that after the pandemic. It was just perfect.”
Rosas, who majored in Industrial and Labor Relations at the ILR School, hopes the program will eventually extend beyond graduation, with an alumni advisory board that will advise students and help them reach their goals – a pipeline of mentorship from the first year at Cornell, through graduation and into professional life.
For now, the peer mentor program is already advancing OADI’s mission to expand equitable access to opportunities at Cornell.
“Some of these connections the mentors helped make will change mentees’ lives forever,” Rosas said. “Because now they’re exposed to a whole new network of people and more opportunities.”
The program has also bolstered a more intangible but essential component of success: a sense of belonging. “When you’re from a minority group, you can sometimes feel like you can’t relate to some people who may be wealthy or privileged in ways you’re not,” Espejo said. “For our mentees to be able to come to us, to express that feeling of not relating or belonging, it allows us to explain that Cornell is full of so many different kinds of people, and to reassure them: you will find your way.”