“People have a better chance of being successful if they go through things together,” says Michael Gordon, William Paterson University professor of psychology and Dean’s Fellow in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
That sentiment has spurred the creation of a new student support system in that College: the Pioneers and Leaders Program, or PALS, in which student-mentors serve as a social connection system to fellow students with academic need, not only offering tutoring but also personally checking in on them weekly and directing them to campus resources as appropriate.
“What happens if someone can’t get to a laptop? Or someone close to a student dies, or they have a panic attack, or they need to get to campus but don’t have a car?” Gordon asks. “There are so many resources on campus, but a lot of students don’t know about or remember them. Our mentors know what those resources are and partner with their PALs to help them be successful. Sometimes that means connecting them with a computer lab, and sometimes it is just being supportive when things are stressful. The PALs are there to help students feel that they’re not just being left behind.”
There are more than 50 students enrolled in the PALS Program in this, its first, semester. They are all majoring in psychology, sociology, or criminal justice—three of the largest programs on campus in which all students are required to take a course in research methods or data analysis. Those technology- and writing-intensive courses are among the most challenging in those departments, and students who don’t do well in those courses often struggle to progress to graduation, Gordon explains.
Therefore, supporting at-risk students who are registered for those classes as soon as the semester starts is paramount, he adds. “We identified students who we knew could succeed—but had also some indicators that might make these courses challenging -- and we invited them to join the PALS Program.”
There are four fellow students serving as mentors—Alicia Rosales Chavez ‘20, Tevondria Darby ‘21, Heather Vansyckel ‘21, and Genesis Villalba-Abarca ‘22. They are academically advanced and have a proven record of reliability, Gordon says.
“I will be a first-generation college graduate and know that there are many challenges for such students in college. It is not only all about academia and completing assignments; other obligations can get in the way,” says PALS mentor Rosales Chavez. “Sometimes we need that positivity, motivation, and that extra push from someone who is in a similar situation—like a fellow student taking the classes that you are taking.”
Early findings on the program’s success have been very promising, according to Tia Cherry, assistant director of academic initiatives and student engagement in the College. She both expects and hopes more students will want to participate in the program next semester as word spreads.
“So far being a mentor has been very eye-opening and amazing. At first, I was scared not knowing how the other students would take to the program, but after talking to them and engaging, I realized how helpful this program is,” says PALS mentor Darby. “Having someone who is your age and going through the same or similar experiences as you, and being able to encourage and motivate them to keep going is amazing.”
“We had one student who needed access to a laptop and we got it taken care of in less than 24 hours,” she adds. Other students who were going through serious personal issues, thanks to the PALS Program, went on to receive the help they needed at the Women’s Center or Counseling, Health, and Wellness Center on campus.
If her mentees walk away from the program with one thing, Rosales Chavez says she hopes it’s the belief that they are not alone. “I was there, finding ways to minimize their issues and finding solutions as best as I could to their concerns,” she continues, lauding Gordon and Cherry for guiding PALS mentors and “working hard behind the scenes.”
“A support system is the biggest thing a college student needs to have,” Darby adds. “Having support can make or break your motivation. This program helps to give students that, and I'm happy I get to help be a part of that.”
Interested in joining the PALS Program as a participant or mentor? Email Tia Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Paterson University
300 Pompton Road
Wayne, New Jersey 07470