Students SOAR with new mentoring program

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Vanessa Arroyo-Perez is naturally a reserved person, but she wanted to do something different to challenge herself and break out of her routine. Luckily, this spring she had a chance to do exactly that when Washington State University launched Student Outreach and Retention (SOAR), a new pilot program that connects students with mentors.

“I got the email and responded that I wanted to break out of my comfort zone and meet new people,” said Arroyo-Perez, a rising WSU senior majoring in fruit and vegetable management and minoring in crop science. “I said I hoped they could find somebody to guide me and encourage me to do new things.”

She applied for SOAR, which was established by WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS).

Vanessa Arroyo-Perez works in a lab.
Vanessa Arroyo-Perez working as a technical assistant in a USDA lab on the WSU campus.

“We wanted to create community, a safe space for students to communicate about their experiences,” said Nancy Deringer, interim associate dean of CAHNRS Student Success and Academic Programs. “We wanted them to share ideas and feel supported as they move through the university experience.”

Deringer, who hopes the program will expand to other colleges within WSU, signed up for the program as a mentor, meeting with two students last semester.

The pilot program had 72 students apply and 23 mentors sign up, meaning a ratio of only two to four students per mentor. That balance was important to SOAR program organizers.

“We wanted to keep the ratio low so we didn’t overwhelm our mentors,” said Miguel Inzunza, CAHNRS director of recruitment and retention, who also signed up as a mentor. “I love talking with students, but this allowed me to get to know them on a different level, to help when they had a real need or faced a barrier.”

Arroyo-Perez appreciated that she and her mentor had similar student experiences, so they could relate to each other quickly. Both were the first in their families to go to college.

“We have advisors, but having somebody who doesn’t know you, who isn’t obligated to talk, and who can share experiences with you was really helpful,” said Arroyo-Perez, who is from Wenatchee, Wash., and plans to graduate in spring 2025. “I felt very comfortable; it was almost like therapy.”

We have advisors, but having somebody who doesn’t know you, who isn’t obligated to talk, and who can share experiences with you was really helpful. I felt very comfortable; it was almost like therapy.

Vanessa Arroyo-Perez, student
Washington State University

The fine line between mental health counselor and advisor is something SOAR’s mentors must regularly walk, but program organizers were very clear in explaining expectations when training mentors.

“We wanted to make sure mentors didn’t feel like mental health counselors,” Inzunza said. “Mental health concerns can come out as people get to know each other, but WSU has resources for that. We gave mentors training to help guide students who may need that additional assistance.”

The three primary SOAR organizers — Deringer, Inzunza, and Colette Casavant, CAHNRS director of student success — plan to expand the program in fall 2024.

“We sent surveys to mentors and mentees to gauge SOAR’s impact and if it is worth continuing,” Casavant said. “From word of mouth and unofficial feedback, it seems to have been very successful.”

Casavant is an academic advisor for many WSU students, including Arroyo-Perez. But SOAR allowed her to learn more about students.

“My two mentees had very different needs and places where they needed a boost,” Casavant said. “I worked with one on how to better prioritize time, while the other was a student who feels isolated. Support can mean different things to different people.”

Arroyo-Perez said that variety played a role in her continued interest in being a mentee of a WSU instructor.

“I’d be happy to do this program again; it gave me a different perspective,” she said. “I’m independent and it helped me. I think someone who may need more support would benefit even more. I’m glad CAHNRS offers this program and hope it continues to help future students.”

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