Mentoring program gives students a boost

The goal of the program is to help guide and motivate minority students.

by Courtney Sinner

University sophomore Thuy Nguyen-Tran wants to be a pediatrician.

With ambitious career goals, it helps that she has someone who can show her current medical research in the labs at Nils Hasselmo Hall, help her write mock research proposals for class and give her résumé feedback.

Who is this phantom helper? It’s Dr. Colin Campbell, a professor in the pharmacology department, and Nguyen-Tran’s faculty mentor. He just happens to have a doctorate in biochemistry – the field that Nguyen-Tran is studying.

Nguyen-Tran and Campbell are part of the President’s Distinguished Faculty Mentor Program.

Originally created in 1986, the program selects high-achievement students of color to participate in a mentorship community to keep them guided and motivated during the beginning of their college career.

The program has gone on hiatus at various times since its inception, but was started again in the fall of 2006 under Cynthia Armijo, the current coordinator.

“The program connects students to the University and to possibilities for academic activities and research,” she said.

The students, who are all recipients of certain scholarships, are typically in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Armijo said that out of the nearly 150 invitation letters they send out, about 40 people accept a spot in the program.

“It was originally a retention tool for traditionally underrepresented students,” Armijo said. “It helps students get involved sooner and in a more structured way. It’s an opportunity to develop their skills and the mentor can provide academic and career guidance.”

The students are matched to a mentor according to their academic and career goals.

Nguyen-Tran said she was interested in research before she started at the University, and when she received a letter in the mail before her first year at school, she saw it as a good opportunity.

“It applies the knowledge of school to real world and makes things more interesting,” she said. “I get to see what he’s working on in the lab, and he even helped me write a mock UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) proposal for class.”

Campbell echoed the comment: “It helps students to understand that there’s a reason why you’re learning this stuff. If you can get kids to understand the process, that’s great,” he said.

Christine Marran, a professor in the Asian languages and literature department, is mentor to sophomore Miki Adachi.

After seeing Marran’s work, Adachi even got interested enough to enroll in one of her classes.

“She may not have otherwise taken this course. But, being in my office, seeing the novels everywhere, interested her,” Marran said.

Campbell said the biggest thing students don’t do is get to know the faculty; that’s where the program benefits him.

On a personal level, Campbell said Nguyen-Tran helps him relate to a younger generation.

Marran also noted that the connection has been beneficial to both of them.

“As much as I can teach her, she helps me to understand the student perspective, and I get encouraged to try new things.”

Campbell said he wished the University administration put more focus on these types of programs.

He said many faculty members are so busy doing research and writing grants that they don’t usually have time to participate in programs like this.

“Where does something like this fit in?” he asked. “The (TCF Bank) Stadium is going to be fabulous, but we get a pin,” he said, in reference to the small lapel pin that the participating faculty members get as compensation for being involved in the program.

Armijo, however, said many faculty members are willing to participate.

“Sometimes the time element can be a challenge, but there is always someone willing,” she said.

Campbell said if the University amended its priorities, “faculty would be competing with each other to do this program.”

Marran agreed.

“Faculty want to do these kinds of things, but there’s so many demands on our time,” she said.

Armijo said although the formal program only lasts through the end of the students’ sophomore year, some past students have stayed in touch with their mentor throughout their undergraduate and graduate programs at the University.

Nguyen-Tran said the program has helped her improve herself.

“The volunteering, the networking – everything has improved my person as a whole,” she said.