Through summer and fall, Oberlin student volunteers will support incoming first-years via an unofficial mentorship program as they transition to College amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The program was created by rising College third-year Colby Fortin and rising College second-year Remy Gajewski. Mentors will meet with first-years over Zoom throughout the year to listen to their anxieties, share information, and be early Oberlin friends. Fortin and Gajewski structured the program to adapt to student needs, in hopes that it will effectively launch first-years into long companionships with older Obies.
“We just believe that supporting all first-years — especially as we enter in the midst of COVID-19 — is really important,” Fortin said.
Though the program shares similar goals with the College’s Peer Advising Leaders program, it distinguishes itself with its individualized pairings. PAL consists of larger groups that are organized by first-year seminars. However, in this informal, student-run program, first-year students and mentors can apply to be paired with someone who shares their identities, hometown, or interests.
To gather a sufficiently diverse pool of mentors for this specificity, Gajewski and Fortin reached out to second-, third-, and fourth-years. Currently, Gajewski stated, the program has over 90 upperclassmen volunteers, and it continues to grow.
Fortin and Gajewski’s collective experiences in other support positions led them to realize the need for this program this summer. In previous semesters, Fortin has worked as a Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct trainer, a Sexual Harm and Information Liaison, and a Peer Advising Leader. Gajewski has worked as an Accessibility Coordinator in the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. In June, Fortin co-organized an informal COVID-19 support group that Gajewski later joined. The current mentorship program grew out of the group’s desire to see a more specific support program for first-years.
Gajewski and Fortin regularly update an FAQ page for first-years and resource document for student mentors, hold office hours for mentors and mentees, and send out weekly discussion topics. Gajewski said they may schedule larger events if mentors and mentees request it.
“This is definitely a living project,” Gajewski said. “We’re very open to new ideas. If people want to have a sort of Zoom meeting or more structured events, that is definitely something we’re open to doing.”
While they are receptive to organizing larger gatherings, Gajewski considers the program’s emphasis on private mentorship an important strength.
“Part of it is letting these relationships grow in their own personal ways,” Gajewski said. “To a certain extent, not being structured is what lets it naturally [happen].”
To prepare mentors to properly handle these intimate meetings, Fortin and Gajewski have focused on preventing unhealthy power dynamics by writing guidelines that will be updated as the project progresses. Fortin added that this priority carries over from several of the College’s other support and mentorship programs.
“Being an upperclassman, there are inherent power dynamics when working with first-years,” Fortin said. “PRSM does a great job of explaining that upperclassmen have established friend groups on campus and networks of support that incoming first-years don’t necessarily have. As program coordinators, we want to make sure upperclassmen are acting in a way that is not exploitative and is professional, as we would expect from any other support person on Oberlin’s campus.”
Fortin and Gajewski both say that they did not create their program because they thought the existing support systems were insufficient, but rather they were inspired to build upon them. They hope that the program’s grassroots beginning will not discourage the College or other programs from partnering with them in the future.
“This mentorship program is one piece in the whole picture of how Oberlin will support its first-years,” Fortin said and went on to commend the PAL program for adapting to the pandemic.
“[PAL’s] Uncovering COVID-19 lecture for admitted students was a joy to be a part of — I helped to facilitate that,” Fortin said.
Fortin and Gajewski intend for the program to end as soon as there is no need for it. If enthusiasm endures, however, they are also open to passing on their leadership roles to others after graduation.
Current Oberlin students who want to mentor an incoming first-year can apply here. Incoming first-years who want a mentor can apply here. Interested mentors should also check the Mentor’s Resource Doc, and first-years can find more information and support in the student-created Obie First-Year FAQ.