Beyond the usual confusions and questions of freshmen year, low-income students who are the first in their families to attend college may arrive on campus with personal fears that they just don’t belong and will never fit in.
However, slightly older students from the same background can ease that uncertainty with advice and friendship, helping those freshmen stay on track in school and eventually graduate, experts say. That is the philosophy of an unusual and growing mentorship program called Level-Up which involves 260 students from the Los Angeles area at 29 college campuses mainly in California.
Early indications are that participants, mostly from low-income Latino families, have been continuing on into their second year of college at higher rates than the general student population, although other factors surely play a role as well, officials said. The mentoring lasts a year to try to get them successfully through freshman year when they are at highest risk of dropping out.
“It’s cool having someone who’s gone through experiences that I’m probably going to go through and help guide me,” said Allan Garcia, a freshman at Pasadena City College who joined the program this fall. Compared to a much older professional college counselor, a mentor close to his age and background makes discussions “more personal,” he said.
As he was about to start college, Garcia realized he needed some help adjusting to life after high school. He wanted to connect with someone a little older who knew the campus ropes and understood the pitfalls and rewards of college freshman year. And even better would be someone like him who came from an immigrant family and was in the first generation to attend college.
He found all that in Ariana Lopez Torres, a second year student at Pasadena City who was matched to become Garcia’s peer mentor in the Level Up program run by the Southern California College Access Network (SoCal CAN).
SoCal CAN reports that about 91 percent of participating freshmen continue into their second year of college. That compares to 84 percent for all students across the 23-campus California State University system and 76 percent across the 114 California community colleges. To be sure, other factors may contribute to Level Up’s strong numbers, such as the students themselves being motivated enough to participate.
Nationwide, young people whose parents did not attend or finish college often lack the “cultural capital that helps students navigate college,” according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report. The study showed that 33 percent of “First Generation” college students nationwide dropped out after three years, compared to just 14 percent of those whose parents had degrees.
Peer mentoring programs are becoming more popular in various forms across the country. Most are tied to summer orientation or are within certain academic departments, such as computer science. Most too were created by the individual colleges to serve just their own students. In contrast, Level Up appears to be unusual since it reaches across different types of colleges and enrolls students of varying interests and abilities, several experts said.
Level Up organizers say it was established to extend assistance beyond traditional college admissions advice. Southern California College Access Network’s membership of 70 college prep and readiness organizations “felt very confident about their ability to get students into college. They felt less confident about their ability to really support students once they arrived on college campuses,” explained Alison De Lucca, the network’s executive director.
First Generation students make up a sizeable share of the student body at California’s public universities; they comprise about 43 percent of new students at the 10-campus University of California system and 32 percent at CSU.
Level Up began pairings two years ago. It is modeled in part on the national Posse Foundation, based in New York City, which sends students with leadership potential to highly selective colleges in groups and provides plenty of support. “If low income, First Generation students are connecting with each other to feel a greater sense of belonging on campus, they are more likely to persist,” De Lucca said.
The Level Up mentors — known as “ambassadors”— are trained in summer meetings on such issues as finding campus resources like tutoring and counseling, getting along with roommates, easing homesickness, appealing financial aid awards and watching for signs of emotional and academic distress, according to Rudy Torres, Level Up program manager.
In addition to in-person meetings once or twice a month, the mentors are supposed to stay connected to their matched student with personal texts or phone calls and also pass along information from the network about study habits and where to find scholarships and food pantries, he said. The volunteer ambassadors are given $100 a year stipend and can receive extra money to take the students they are mentoring to lunch. Some mentees become advisors the following year.
This fall, most Level Up pairings are at UC campuses including UCLA, Berkeley and Merced; and at CSU campuses including Northridge, Long Beach and San Jose. Students are participating at six community colleges including Santa Monica, Glendale and East Los Angeles and at a handful of private schools such as University of Southern California and Azusa Pacific University. At a few schools in other states, such as Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York, California students help mentor younger ones from home.
However, not every match of personalities works out well or persist. Some freshmen, program manager Torres said, “don’t reach out for help if they are feeling overwhelmed with school and social life.”
Still he and other officials insist they see mentors helping freshmen navigate problems that might otherwise sink them. Ambassadors serve as early warning monitors who tip off professional staff about financial aid crises or struggles with working too many hours at off-campus jobs, they said.
Getting advice from another student may be “more attractive and less threatening” than dealing with a much older counselor, said Lindsay Page, an assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh. Yet a possible drawback is that students may be reluctant to reveal personal problems to a peer in “the same social network,” added Page who is a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She has received national attention for researching ways, including text message reminders, to make sure students actually show up for their first college classes.
Jo Arney, program director of Re-Imagining the First Year, a national project seeking to improve freshmen retention rates at state colleges, said Level Up sounded promising. Freshmen “have to be taught to be a college student. And the people who are in the best position to do that are the ones who just did that themselves,” she explained. At the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, where she is director of student success, a similar mentoring program is being started for African American males, she said.
At the University of Southern California, freshman Catherine Bernardo, 18, is matched with junior Ana Antuna, 20, both from immigrant families who live in central Los Angeles. Antuna recently transferred to USC and the two are learning about the campus together even as the older student provides emotional support along with tips about better study habits.
“Sometimes I feel I’m not meant to be here and that this is too much for me,” Bernardo said of the university. Her mentor then “sends positive messages to keep on going,” she said. They laugh about what they see as indulgences of some other students, such as a woman wearing an expensive Chanel t-shirt for a gym workout.
Antuna said she sometimes shares Bernardo’s discomfort of studying at a campus where fellow Latinos comprise only about 15 percent of the student body but reassures her “that even though we don’t feel comfortable sometimes, we earned our spot here. We belong here.”
At Pasadena City College, mentor Ariana Lopez Torres said she wanted to help a younger student avoid the shock she felt starting college last year. “In high school everything is given to you, even your books. But here, you have to be responsible for everything. And they don’t prepare you for that,” she said.
She and Garcia show an easy camaraderie as a result of their twice a month get-togethers over snacks and additional texting. Most important, Garcia said, is her general support “to stay motivated.”