This new school year called for creativity.
Over the summer, Junior Don Christian Laroche worked with Katie Merwin, Dean of Students, as the Student Support and Programming intern. During the internship, he worked to develop a similar quality of student life and community for the upcoming school year as there was before the pandemic.
“King’s is a school where a lot of the learning gets done through word of mouth,” said Laroche, adding that online classes make this a challenge.
Laroche came up with the idea for the student mentorship program after reflecting on his own experience as a first-year student. He applied to King’s late in his senior year of high school after planning to attend another university. Though he cruised King’s website, he says he really discovered what being a student was like through conversation when he arrived. During orientation week, he spent hours chatting with upper-year students.
The mentorship program also developed from conversations Laroche had with other upper-year students. He contacted about 10 second-year students to ask what made them comfortable at King’s in their first year and what didn’t.
What he found? The natural conversation that happens between first and upper-year students is one of the most common ways new students navigate King’s. Laroche recognized that this was challenging to continue during an online school year.
“We knew that it wasn’t going to be as easy because there weren’t going to be as many people on campus,” Laroche said. “I figured if we could put as many first-year students as possible in contact with an upper-year student who knew the lay of the land, then that would be one way that we could continue that tradition of student-to-student learning and relationship building.”
Laroche began his internship in late spring and started research for the project around mid-June.
Along with the mentorship, Laroche brainstormed other ideas. He started working on a weekly podcast that included updates about university events, interviews with professors and society leaders but scrapped it, lacking time and finding it too much for one person. He hopes the idea stays within administration for the future.
Laroche’s priority was the mentorship program. “This just so happened to be the one that I saw as the most important project to really push forward,” he said.
Besides its personal nature, Laroche focused on the mentorship program because it was easy to implement, but he says not to underestimate the time and planning involved in launching it. “We really, really wanted to make sure we did this right,” he said.
At the end of July, Laroche began developing training for mentors. He wanted the project to be low commitment, so his goal was to create a concise and effective training document. Over the course of about a month, he created a nine-page guide. The first two pages discussed how to set boundaries in a relationship. The rest of the guide included resources that mentors could provide their mentees if specific concerns or issues arose. The document stated that peer support was not the mentor’s responsibility.
“We really wanted to make sure that we were encouraging our mentors to be able to facilitate an interaction between the first-year students and those most effective aspects of the university that could help them out,” Laroche said.
Both first and upper-year students received an email about the program on Aug. 19. Applications were originally due Aug. 21, but an email sent on Sept. 3 extended the deadline to Sept. 6. A call for applications was also posted on King’s website.
Laroche placed emphasis on second-year mentors, whose first-year experiences were still fresh in mind. He expanded potential mentors to include third and fourth-year students because of the small size of the school and to include students from more varied backgrounds.
To apply for the program, students had to fill out a Google survey. The survey, different for first and upper-year students, aimed to profile students so they could be matched with the best mentor for them – one with similar life experiences and interests. The surveys differed in wording. While first-year students were asked what they were anxious for in the new school year, upper-years were asked what they were confident helping new students with.
Laroche and Merwin paired students over the course of a few afternoons.
Roughly 120 students are participating in the program. Initially, there were five more first-year students registered than upper-years. After a few more upper-years registered, the discrepancy was lowered to about two. Two upper-year students took on two mentees, resolving the imbalance.
Making a Connection
On Sept. 11, Laroche connected mentorship pairs by sending an email addressed to both the student mentor and their mentee. He emailed the training document to student mentors separately. Laroche ended his internship at the end of the summer and Merwin is now overseeing the project.
Second-year student Jessica Hannaford is participating in the program. When COVID-19 halted in-person classes at King’s last year, she found it difficult to stay motivated without having her friends with her. “I think it would be so hard to be a first-year student right now,” she said.
Hannaford decided to join the mentorship program to help maintain community at King’s.
“You need to engage with people and talk to people,” she said. “That’s kind of the whole point of King’s – the community aspect.”
Though Hannaford believes the program helps continue community, she says that it’s not an “end-all, be-all.”
“It’s not going to save it, but I did want to do it because it does help in a way.”
Hannaford was paired with first-year student Mckenna Dominey, who she bonded with over common interests including writing and the videogame Sims. At the beginning of the school year, the two spoke frequently and even met for coffee at Coburg Social.
“It was a little bit weird because we obviously didn’t know what to expect of each other. I had no idea what she looked like,” Dominey said with a laugh.
Dominey, who lives on campus, decided to join the mentorship program to immerse herself at King’s.
“I want to try and take in as much as I can, especially where everything’s online,” Dominey said. “I thought it would be a really cool opportunity to meet someone and make a new friend within the King’s community.”
Dominey says she has benefitted from the program. “It’s really nice talking to someone that’s further along in their degree,” she said.
Hannaford says she has also benefited from the program, as it gives her a tie to the King’s community while living off-campus. “I was worried that I’d feel isolated,” she said.
Unlike Hannaford and Dominey, some mentorship pairs haven’t bonded – or even spoken.
Sam Sumner, another second-year student, joined the program to support new students. “As a first-year,” she said, “I would want somebody in an upper year to tell me it was all going to be okay.” After Sumner received her pairing information, she emailed her mentee to introduce herself.
She never heard back.
First-year student Ridge Sieb didn’t hear from his mentor either. He didn’t reach out because he thought they’d contact him first and because he felt confident without the extra support. “Ultimately it’s also my fault we never connected,” he said in a text message.
Another student connected with their mentee, but the conversation has since faded.
Second-year student Chase Fitzgerald messaged frequently with her mentee over a few days at the beginning of September, but she says the conversation has since died off.
“I assume she’s super busy with online school, which is so understandable,” Fitzgerald said. She sent her mentee a message a few days ago letting them know that she was there if they needed anything. She hasn’t heard back but says she still hopes to.
Many people shared their experience with the mentorship program. I’ve learned about it firsthand, too.
Being a first-year student myself, I signed up for the mentorship program because I wanted to stay connected while studying off-campus. I do miss the spontaneous conversations from “before,” but the mentorship program has helped compensate. Having an older student to ask questions has dissolved the mystery veiling many unfamiliar aspects of King’s. Most importantly, the program has given me someone to reach out to. It can be isolating to study online, especially away from Halifax, but this program reminds me that I’m not alone.
Social distancing doesn’t have to be isolating. Now more than ever, we must connect – even from a distance.