Course registration, exams, financial aid, making friends - these are intimidating topics first-year students encounter when they arrive on campus each fall. That's why orientation and first-year programs are so important: these programs can be really effective at guiding new students through unfamiliar processes and connecting them to the people and resources they need to succeed at their new school. We reached out to Bryce Bunting, Associate Director of Brigham Young University's First-Year Mentoring Office, to learn more about BYU's approach to the first-year experience and how the program uses text messaging to address the unique needs of first-year students.
The first-year experience at BYU is guided by an innovative peer mentor program in which experienced and highly-trained undergraduate students support first-year students from the time of their admission to BYU until the end of their first year.
Signal Vine: What is the role of a peer mentor?
Brigham Young University: Peer mentors offer support through a variety of ways including answering students’ basic questions about the university, orienting students to campus during New Student Orientation events, connecting students with key university resources (e.g. academic advisement resources, academic support, counseling and psychological services, involvement opportunities, etc.), meeting with them periodically to discuss their experiences on campus, organizing co-curricular activities, and teaching and modeling effective learning strategies.
SV: What outcomes are most important in measuring student success?
BYU: Our main metric for measuring success is whether a student successfully completes their first semester on campus (defined as a GPA of 2.0 or above). However, this is a fairly low bar for “success,” so we also look at measures of “flourishing” and “floundering” that are determined based on students’ responses to end of fall semester and end of first-year surveys.
Additionally, we measure student success in the degree to which they participate in a cluster of educationally relevant activities and processes (e.g. attending class, persisting through difficulty, completing readings/assignments on time, adapting study habits to meet the increased demands of college, seeking help/feedback). Overall, we are interested in supporting students in being highly engaged during their first year on campus.
SV: How has texting affected the mentor-student relationship?
BYU: We began our formal use of texting in May of 2015 (although peer mentors had been using it to interact with students informally for two or three years leading up to our formal adoption of text messaging). Our initial evaluation has demonstrated that first-year students who were enrolled in the Signal Vine platform (May – August 2015) (a) interacted with their peer mentor more frequently, (b) had a stronger relationship with their peer mentor, and (c) saw more value in having a peer mentor.
SV: What are some examples of the most common questions students have asked through the platform?
BYU: The most common questions students have asked have been around (a) Registration for classes (e.g. When can I register for my first-semester classes? How many credits should I register for?), (b) questions about specific courses (e.g. Should I take Math 112 my first semester?), and (c) Financial Aid & Scholarships (e.g. What’s the FAFSA? How do I contact someone in the scholarship office?).
Other questions (though less common) included questions about on-campus housing (e.g. When can I select my room?) and finding on-campus jobs/internships.
From BYU Peer Mentors
"[A student] is the first one in his family to come to BYU, and so the Signal Vine platform gave us an easy way to communicate whenever he had questions. He asked about a variety of things like Jumpstart, what classes freshman are supposed to take, what sets "pre-professional" majors apart from other majors, and pell grants. I think it was good for him to have a way to get the answers whenever he had questions, especially because he was unfamiliar with how BYU worked at that time."
"[A student] asked if I had been the mentor who sent her text messages all summer, and after I said yes, she told me how helpful that had been. Though she was soft-spoken and somewhat shy, she opened up to me and we spent an entire lunch talking to each other and forming a great connection. I am positive that the frequent messages sent through Signal Vine were part of the reason that she felt comfortable enough to open up to me at NSO. We have now had several face-to-face meetings throughout the semester and we have established a great mentoring relationship."
Read other Q&As here!