Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

You have to get them while they’re young

Last fall, the University began a freshman mentoring program for first-generation college students. The program is one segment of a plan to eventually expand freshman mentoring to all freshmen, which is one segment of a plan for hopefully transforming the freshman experience.

Unfortunately, while there is widespread agreement on what programs need to be created for first-year students, we have not created an overarching infrastructure to enact those ideas.

For instance, last year the SGA started the Before Bama initiative, which used online surveys to help incoming students identify which student organizations would be a good fit for them. But, that information was not shared with freshman mentors, who could have used it to connect their mentees with relevant groups.

The result is that freshman mentoring, and the freshman experience in general, remains an idea that occasionally inspires disparate initiatives but has not evolved into a structured, engaging program.

Freshman mentoring has been successful only because it exists; finally, we have something of a system in place to help new students get grounded on campus. However, in terms of actually engaging the freshman class, the program has been ineffective. It is limited to first generation college students. Mentors were given no incentive for their service, and there was no way to hold them accountable for their performance. Mentees were not given an incentive for showing up and participating, making it hard for mentors to bring their entire group together and guide them through their first months on campus.

At Vanderbilt University, mentoring is required as a University core program during the fall semester. Freshmen are divided into small groups, each with a faculty and student mentor. For an hour each week, groups meet to have discussions and participate in activities. Freshmen also live together in a set of dorms that facilitate frequent social interactions. The entire program is overseen by a dean.

Vanderbilt’s freshman class is obviously much smaller than ours. However, by examining the way other universities target first year students, we can learn a great deal about how to best serve those students on this campus.

The obvious first steps include expanding freshman mentoring to the entire freshman class and making it mandatory, compensating mentors or providing them with a credit hour, and coordinating between programs targeted towards first-year students. During his campaign, SGA President Grant Cochran talked about using First Year Council applications to help steer freshman toward different involvements. More than 600 students applied to be in FYC last year; the ones who were not selected did not have an obvious place to go next. Imagine if we took Cochran’s vision a step further and created a venue through which students could learn about Freshman Forum and FYC, apply, and then, based on their interests, be directed toward other activities, under the guide of an older mentor.

However, the SGA cannot be expected to spearhead this effort indefinitely; it simply does not have the capacity to manage such a wide-reaching endeavor. A comprehensive and sustainable First Year Experience program must be initiated and managed by the University.

Eventually, other ideas should be considered, such as grouping freshmen together in specific residential communities, having RA’s network with and plan activities for their floor, and utilizing meal times to bring new students together in the dining halls. A University standing committee could potentially be a good way to provide such a program with direction and oversight.

The University of Alabama has some of the best venues for student leadership in the country. Just recently, The Crimson White was named the best daily student newspaper in the Southeast. Our SGA is widely known for its ability to prepare future leaders for the state. The Blackburn Institute and the Honors College both provide their students with amazing opportunities.

However, there is an enormous involvement gap between those who arrive with the connections and ambitions to take part in these organizations, and those who don’t. The most involved and connected students at Alabama are likely to have a better collegiate experience than they would receive anywhere; the least involved will never experience the true breadth of opportunities the University offers.

While not every student is going to commit their life to the CW or the SGA, informing freshmen about the possibilities that exist on campus while allowing them to network with one another will, at a minimum, provide a better context through which they can grow and learn.

The best way to change a university is to start with the freshman class. A coordinated program that brings diverse groups of students together the day they step on campus and introduces them to the extraordinary community they have joined would go a long way towards creating a more unified student body, and a better university.


Tray Smith is the opinions editor of The Crimson White. His column runs on Mondays


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