Many adults who mentor students in the Illinois Promise program often had "aha moments" during their youth, instances when a caring adult's guidance or insight changed the course of their lives, said Susan Gershenfeld, the director of Illinois Promise Student Services.
Photo courtesy Susan Gershenfeld
U. of I. engineering professor Andy Ferguson's "aha moment" occurred when a lecturer in one of the courses Ferguson took as an undergraduate suggested that he consider obtaining an advanced degree - perhaps at a university in Australia or the U.S.
"That thought had never occurred to me," said Ferguson, a native of Scotland. "I thought I was just going to get my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and go to work for an oil company. He really opened my eyes to that being a potential future track, and then he helped guide me through the application process. I don't think I would be where I am today if I hadn't had supportive mentors."
Currently a professor in the department of materials science and engineering at Illinois, Ferguson is nurturing the next generation of scientists by serving as a mentor for students in the Illinois Promise program, also called I-Promise.
Created in 2005, I-Promise provides full scholarships to high-achieving students from low-income families. Recipients, who must be Illinois residents, also benefit from enrichment and support programs that promote their college success, such as the voluntary mentoring program.
Intended to ease new students' transition to college, the mentoring program enables participating students to select an adult or peer mentor to provide them with social support during their first year on campus.
Adult mentors are U. of I. faculty or staff members, academic professionals or community members. Peer mentors, who must be sophomores, juniors or seniors, often are I-Promise students who are alumni of the mentoring program.
"Every mentor puts together a non-academic biographical sketch that tells about their own experiences, why they want to be a mentor, how they'll be of service and their other interests," Gershenfeld said of the mentor application process. "Based on what I learn from interviews with prospective mentors and mentees, I narrow the potential mentors down to three or so people, and mentees look at their bio sketches and make a selection."
Most students seeking mentors select adults, often choosing people who have similar academic/professional interests, hobbies or life circumstances.
John Ser, who will be a sophomore in mechanical engineering this fall, said he selected Ferguson to be his mentor because of their shared interest in engineering and similar backgrounds.
Ser, who was born in Korea, moved to the U.S. with his family when he was a first-grader.
Ferguson earned an undergraduate degree from Imperial College in London before moving to the U.S. to earn a doctorate degree in chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University. Ferguson joined the Illinois faculty in the department of materials science and engineering in 2012 and became an I-Promise mentor the following spring, when he was matched with Ser.
During Ser's freshman year, the pair met about twice a month to have lunch and talk, although they sometimes got together or exchanged emails in between.
"We talked about problems that came up or issues he was having," Ferguson said. "I was able to help him out with some linear algebra problems. Wrapping up at the end of the year, I asked John what he felt that he got out of the relationship, and he said it was just terrific to have someone who was very friendly, sort of knew the university system and that he could approach with questions or could point him in the right direction to resources that he wouldn't be able to find by himself."
Ser said Ferguson's advice was especially valuable in relation to a team project that Ser worked on with three other freshmen in the College of Engineering and Stephen Boppart, a professor in the college. The team, which invented a smart, cloud-based network system that integrates health care monitoring devices, was selected to be one of 10 finalists for the $100,000 Student Technology Prize for Primary Healthcare.
(The 2014 finalists in the competition, hosted by the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, also included an intercollegiate team led by recent Illinois alumnus Jonathan Fajardo Cortes and engineering faculty member Gang Logan Liu, which developed a biosensor wristband for diabetic monitoring.)
About 70 percent of I-Promise students are first-generation college students such as Andrea Rodriguez, who will be a senior this fall and is majoring in general engineering.
Rodriguez credits her mentor, staff member Leslie Vermillion, with helping her persevere in college and discover that engineering, not medicine, was the appropriate career path for her.
"Leslie gave me so many insights and helped me make so many connections," Rodriguez said. "As a first-generation student, I was kind of lost. Leslie gave me the confidence that, 'OK, this is hard, but I can do it. I can stay. I can finish my degree in this institution.' "
Vermillion, who is the senior director of development in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and was a first-generation college student herself, has mentored several I-Promise students during her five years with the program. By networking with Illinois alumni, Vermillion has connected I-Promise students with professionals who helped them clarify their educational/career goals and access developmental opportunities such as internships and conferences.
"Even though the work that I'm doing benefits students, I don't often get to interact with them," Vermillion said. "So the mentoring program is a fantastic way to get to interact with students and keep in touch with what they're thinking and what's important to them. After all, they're what we're all about."
Prospective adult mentors go through a two-hour training session held at the beginning of the fall semester. Led by staff members from the Counseling Center, the training covers the skills needed for mentoring young adults, provides advice on managing differences and highlights resources that are available on campus. Experienced I-Promise mentors lead a panel discussion and answer questions.
Ongoing support for mentors is provided through monthly brown-bag lunches, which enable mentors to network, solicit advice and share information.
Mentors commit to meeting at least one hour a month with their mentees, and the program offers social opportunities, such as receptions during the fall and spring semesters, held at the director's home and Memorial Stadium, respectively. Students and their mentors also can share a multi-course meal while polishing their manners under the guidance of an etiquette expert at the annual etiquette dinner.
During the 2013-14 academic year, 91 adults and 20 peer mentors worked with I-Promise mentees.
About one-third of incoming I-Promise students participate in the mentoring program, according to a recent case study that Gershenfeld conducted.
How to volunteer
Illinois faculty and staff members and retirees are encouraged to mentor I-Promise students for the upcoming academic year.
Applicants are asked to complete a brief biographical sketch and schedule a brief interview with Susan Gershenfeld, the program's director.
To apply, contact Gershenfeld at 217-244-7719; or email email@example.com by Aug. 22.