Silvia Lee still remembers her first impressions of Penn State.
The second-year student who plans to graduate in three years with a neuroscience psychology degree described the University Park campus as hectic but with a strong sense of community. Additionally, everyone she met was extremely nice and willing to help, said Lee.
Easing the transition even more was FastStart, the Penn State Alumni Association’s student mentoring program, which helps first-year students who are mostly from African American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian and Asian/Pacific American backgrounds. An estimated 2,000 students have completed the program since its inception in the mid-1990s.
A mentoring triad is created, where students are paired with two mentors: an alum and a faculty/staff member. Students are then given the opportunity to connect with the Penn State community through on- and off-campus events.
Students receive advice from alumni mentors who impart a “been there–done that” perspective, while on-campus faculty/staff mentors help students navigate the daily journey of college life at University Park.
"The goals of FastStart are just to really help these students get acclimated to the culture of Penn State, the culture of State College and being a college student,” said Lindsey Zapletal, FastStart coordinator and assistant director of Student Involvement.
The program received its first endowment recently from Greg Sam ’80, who paid his way through Penn State and earned a science degree.
In endowing the award, Sam (pictured here alongside Lee) said he expects recipients to give back and help others achieve their educational goals, with help coming in the form of coaching, mentoring, tutoring, providing internships or jobs and for those who can afford it, financial assistance.
The first Sam Family FastStart Student Award will be given this spring to honor and recognize outstanding academic achievement by a student enrolled in FastStart, with Sam’s gift helping students like Lee for generations to come.
Lee, originally from Saipan, an island in the Pacific Ocean, moved to Pittsburgh with her family while she was in elementary school. Once she arrived at Penn State, she embarked on mini adventures, taking a new route to class each day so she could explore the campus on her own. She said, however, that it was comforting to know there was somewhere she could turn for help or to ask questions, just in case.
“Just the thought of knowing someone was there my first year when I was new at Penn State was a comfort to me,” Lee said. “ As the year progressed, my mentor and I built a strong connection and we do still keep in touch. She was like a second mother to me when I was away from home and starting new.”
Zapletal said students sometimes ask to be paired with an alumni member who is located in a geographic region where the student is from or hopes to someday live and work. Students and mentors then communicate via text messages, Skype, Facebook or other forms of social media.
Students who apply to the program are invited to a reception where they can mingle with potential mentors to see if a bond develops. After that, events are scheduled that afford the students the chance to develop personal and professional skills.
Some of the activities that took place this past semester were a block party during September’s Welcome Week, a trip to New York City and tours of the University Park campus and Pattee/Paterno Libraries.
A variety of experiences are provided—everything from relaxed environments in which students and mentors can bond, such as a barbecue, to an etiquette dinner and résumé workshop that allows students real-world applications.
The first event, a welcoming reception, is where Robert Berrian realized he could make an impact. He attended the function with a colleague and met students who he talked with about therapy and psychology, Berrian’s background.
Pairings are designed to last a year, but sometimes the relationship that’s created continues. Berrian, for example, has mentored and stayed in touch with some students for all four years of his involvement with the program.
He said he’ll initially meet with students once a week, then once a month, in the first year of the relationship. In later years, it may be as simple as getting together for coffee or lunch and catching up but the connection remains.
“It’s always a fun relationship,” Berrian said, “seeing them mature.”
Berrian, a disability specialist in Penn State’s Office for Disability Services, has experience working with students in private and public schools and said that making the move to college life can be more difficult for students in the program, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
“They’re looking for guidance in that sense from an adult,” said Berrian. “Most often it’s just a challenge of being a college student. It would be for anybody, but it seems especially for a first-generation student.”
Echoing Zapletal’s comments, Berrian said he and the students focus on what it takes to be a college student: show up, go to class, prepare for assignments and know which social groups and functions to avoid and which ones to join.
Unspoken lessons are also learned. Lee said her mentor never vocally expressed the biggest piece of advice she passed on, but it’s the reason why Lee returned this year to serve on the leadership board for FastStart, where she helps plan activities for the group.
“She’s given me a lot of advice, but one that I learned from her is just to take the time to help others,” Lee said of her mentor. “It doesn’t really take that much time to catch up with someone, but it helps a lot to receive that comfort and just that presence. I would take that lesson and apply it to (other mentees).
“One of the reasons I wanted to help the other incoming freshmen was because I received so much time and help and I wanted to give back in some way.”
For information on becoming a mentor or supporting the FastStart program, visit its website, call 814-863-6386 or email FastStartInfo@psu.edu.