As the director of Oregon State University’s Precollege Programs, I was naturally disappointed when I had to turn down a request by the I Have a Dream Foundation (IHD) in 2012 to “adopt” one of their classrooms at Alder Elementary in Portland. Adopting a high-need classroom fits perfectly within our mission to inspire Oregon’s youth to pursue higher education and help them understand how to afford and prepare for college.
While we appeared to be a perfect partner for IHD, we simply didn’t have the resources to send an OSU student mentor to Alder Elementary every week. But, I can’t stand to say no. So, I wondered, if we couldn’t send a college student there, what else could we do for them? The idea emerged, simple in retrospect, of having a college student use Skype to connect with Alder Elementary students as a “virtual mentor.”
I was skeptical whether the online format would allow students to bond with their college mentor, and vice versa. But, I’m a scientist, the cost was negligible, and piloting the project would be an interesting experiment. We worked with IHD staff to develop lesson plans that reinforced the work of teachers at Alder. For example, one lesson compared elementary school to college and the importance of developing study skills to succeed at both. Dillon, our college student mentor, used Skype to connect to four grade 3 classrooms every other week.
The program proved to be much more effective than anticipated. The Alder students wrote letters to Dillon explaining the careers they aspired to and what their college major would be (this level of college awareness testifies to the effectiveness of IHD). Dillon learned all the students’ names. He Skyped from his dorm room and the library, and he took videos of football games and events to show Alder students what college life was like.
By the end of the year, it was clear that Dillon needed to meet the students face to face. We arranged a surprise visit to Alder. As he walked down the hall, one student said, “Hey! That’s Dillon!” and he was soon mobbed like a rock star.
When Dillon got back to OSU he said, “You know, hearing the stories of those kids makes me realize the challenges I’ve overcome as a first-generation college student. I’m more driven to finish college than ever.”
Wow! Retention of first-generation college students is a benefit that is important at all levels of higher education. So, the program is paying off for both current and future generations of students.
In the first year the program, now called Beaver Hangouts, served 80 grade 3 students. The next year we added a second virtual mentor and included middle school students, serving 170 youth. This year we have a College Access Corps Coordinator, Jenna Geracitano, who has expanded the program to include over 20 college student mentors and 20 classrooms through a partnership with GEAR UP.
We are currently conducting a quantitative assessment of the program’s impact on mentor and student learning outcomes. But, we know the Beaver Hangouts experiment has been a success: It is cost-effective, scalable, and perhaps most important, fun for the students and mentors. The program can be adopted with modest investment by any university or community college. We believe online mentoring holds promise for helping to achieve Oregon’s “40-40-20” educational goal and could also be effective in reaching rural students.
We are happy to share our experience and lesson plans. Feel free to contact us if you would like to participate in the program or just learn more about it.
Check out Education Northwest's wide range of resources on mentoring on our Youth Program and Nonprofit Support page.