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October 24, 2002 Faculty mentors reach out to new mature students



by Barbara Black

One hundred and ten faculty members are going to go an extra mile by initiating contact and offering to meet with some of their students one-on-one.

An ambitious program was launched this term by the Centre for Mature Students’ new director, Robert Oppenheimer. He is acting on a hunch that students who have been out of school for a while need more support and advice than the students who have sailed right through the school system.

“Mature students” is the designation given to those who are admitted to the university at age 21 or over, without a CEGEP diploma or its equivalent, and have been out of the educational system for at least two years. These students are required to take an additional 18 credits for their degree.

Concordia has about 450 first-time mature students this term, and Professor Oppenheimer is trying to ensure that every one of them is offered personal support by a professor. Every department of the university has one or more designated mentors. He or she will initiate contact with up to five students each term, and spend about half an hour a month providing a sympathetic ear.

Learning unwritten rules

History professor Graeme Decarie loves the idea, because he knows how it feels to be a fish out of water. “Your background is so important,” he said. “It provides the unwritten rules that nobody tells you — how to behave, even how to cheat.”

How to cheat? “I remember, a professor mentioned a book in class. At the next class, this student mentioned it and impressed everybody. I asked him if he’d read the book, and he said, No, I just read a review. When you come from a middle-class background where you’re expected to go university, you know all that.”

Decarie came from the working class, and fumbled his way through his first degree. He got a job teaching high school, but he felt like a fraud. He forced himself to go back to university for a graduate degree at night, and for the first time, learned how to study. Now he’s something of a missionary for higher education, demystifying it on local CJAD radio, among other places.

Decarie has already contacted the students assigned to him, and meets with several of them once a month. There’s a lot he can tell them — how to study, how to write a university-level paper, how to read the teacher’s unspoken thoughts. “A university teacher wants certain things, and some don’t say. Even the regular students don’t always know.”

He helps the students pick their next courses, and advises them to ask other students about the profs in order to choose the personalities that are right for them. Surely teachers’ personalities aren’t the main criterion for choosing courses? “Oh, yes, they make all the difference. They’re more important than the choice of courses,” Decarie said.

Reassuring words

Shiping Ma, a professor in the Exercise Science Department, is equally enthusiastic, even though the mentoring program is cutting into an already crowded teaching and research schedule.

“Some students don’t know about the program, and they are surprised,” he said. “They have a very positive reaction knowing that they can come to me if they have a problem.” These concerns range widely, from feeling poorly prepared academically to domestic turmoil that could lead to dropping out.

Ma was glad to help a student who was struggling with her academic English. Like him, her first language is Mandarin. Maybe he told her a few stories from his own life that made her feel better. He left China to do his PhD in the United States, did postdoctoral work at the Université de Montréal, and has been at Concordia for 12 years now.

Oppenheimer has great hopes for the mentoring program, which clearly addresses Concordia’s mandate to provide wide accessibility to higher education. He knows that every year, many students give up, haunted by a sense of having failed again.

“We can make them feel more connected,” he said simply. “We can refer them to others at the university who can help them — Counselling and Development for academic difficulties, Financial Aid for financial problems, Health Services for problems with their family life.”

The Centre for Mature Students also has a peer program. Eight mature students with a little experience under their belt are working as advisors to new students, helping them find their feet. It helps answer the plea that surfaced in a recent survey of “what students want.” Talk to me, they said. Just talk to me.