May 20 2019

RISE Program Makes Mentors of Mentees

Graduate school can be an intimidating proposition, especially an Ivy League graduate school in New York City like the Columbia Mailman School. Adjusting to a new environment and intense academic demands is a challenge to anyone, not least of all, to students of color and students who are the first in their families to pursue a higher degree.

Educational research finds that peer mentorship can help students of color and first-generation students to transition to graduate school, providing the support to succeed in predominantly white institutions which have historically been unwelcoming and unsupportive of their success.

Introduced last fall, the Columbia Mailman RISE Peer Mentor Program paired first-year master’s students with second-year student mentors of similar backgrounds to share the knowledge and resources gained through their experience in graduate school. The program combines one-on-one conversations, group activities, and opportunities for leadership development, notably the chance for mentees to become mentors.

In all, 12 student mentors mentored 24 students through the program this year. As they start their second year this fall, many of these mentees will continue as mentors to a new class.

“RISE stands for Resilience, Inclusivity, Solidarity, and Empowerment,” says Raygine DiAquoi, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Culture, and Inclusion. “These are qualities we hope this program will foster. More than anyone else, peers provide the support our first-year students need to cultivate a sense of belonging. Social belonging, or the extent to which we feel that we are valued and respected members of our community, plays a key role in a student’s academic success.”

First-year Health Policy and Management student Kenquavius McCollum and his mentor, Corine Whittick, met regularly over coffee or lunch throughout the academic year. Discussions ranged from meeting the challenges of the Columbia Core to what to expect in a summer practicum. The pair had much in common, starting with the fact that they both earned undergraduate degrees in Georgia. “We also have similar personalities,” McCollum said. “Corine is someone I can relate to.”

McCollum says he benefited from his mentor’s help in innumerate ways, from study tips to guidance on preparing for a career in public health. “She knew about the resources available for students,” he says. “She told me about networking opportunities and looked over my resume.”

The RISE program organizes group activities, such as a game night to alleviate stress and presentations by DiAquoi and other leaders, including local alumni of color. “It was a great way to see what life after Mailman can look like,” says McCollum of the alumni visit. This summer, he will test the waters of the consulting world through a summer practicum with the New York City-based firm Baker Tilly.

Another RISE mentee, Victoria Garcia counts her mentor, Selena Gonzalez, as a trusted confidant and friend. “She helped me get through some hard times,” says Garcia, who struggled with imposter syndrome. “She was my unofficial therapist and made me aware of resources like the Center for Student Wellness.”

Garcia, who is from a Texas border town, is a first-generation U.S. citizen. Neither of her parents graduated from college. “I took a big risk applying to graduate school,” she says.  “When I read about RISE, I said to myself, ‘I need that.’”

This August, RISE will train its new class of mentors, Garcia and McCollum included.  “I want to be a great resource for my mentee,” says Garcia. “I know how important it is to make a connection with faculty. I know how to find a job. I know how to navigate the School and the city.”