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Making a Pact

September 4, 2009

Marcos Gallardo, an 18-year-old freshman at New York’s Mercy College, was scared to step onto its campus. He knew he wanted to be there, but wasn’t quite sure how to handle it all.

Son of emigrants from the Dominican Republic, Gallardo is a first-generation college student whose family is supportive, but can only give him so much direction, especially when it comes to classes, majors, internships, jobs and navigating Mercy’s administrative infrastructure.

Soon after he enrolled in January, though, he was assigned to meet with Caitlin Krueger, whose job is to give him guidance on academics, careers, college life, financial aid and anything else he needs help with along the way. “Without her, it would’ve been hard,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to handle the work or known how to deal with a lot of my problems -- I mean, this is college.”

Krueger is Gallardo’s mentor, assigned to him as part of the college’s pilot Personalized Achievement Contract (PACT) Program, which intends to foster one-on-one relationships between first-time, full-time freshmen and staff members trained in admissions, student services, academic and career advising, personal assessments, financial aid and -- less typically for staff at a college or university -- customer service.

A private liberal arts college with five campuses in and around New York City, Mercy is looking for an advantage, a way to attract and keep students with countless other options in a densely populated area. PACT, administrators think, is just that edge.

The program aims to cut through red tape, bureaucracy and institutional silos to give students all the support they need from a single staff member, says Krueger, a senior assistant director of PACT. “They may be students but they’re also our customers and we want them to be happy.”

Kimberly Cline, the college’s president for the last year and a half, points to the success and proliferation in recent decades of enrollment services offices that bring bursar, registrar and financial aid staff all under one roof. She worked to launch PACT with the goal of doing the same for all aspects of the student experience.

“It’s tough for students to shuffle from office to office trying to take care of their problem,” she says. "They really need a one-stop shop where they can take care of all the issues they have.”

Cline acknowledges that PACT’s creation and eventual success or failure are rooted in how it affects statistics on retention and graduation, but says there’s more to the program than just wanting to keep students enrolled until they’ve earned a degree. “We are helping them maximize their potential,” she says. “We’re not just helping them get through college and get a job.… We try to focus on helping our students find the career choices that will give them lifetime success.”

Keeping It Personal

PACT emphasizes individual attention and customization, but as it expands more than tenfold this semester, it will need to cope with the growing pains that come with scaling up from a small pilot to a fully running program. As the years go on and current freshmen become sophomores and then juniors and seniors, the program will need to grow even larger to give each student a mentor.

The spring pilot program included 50 students and a few mentors. As of Wednesday, 525 new freshmen had joined that cohort, with the college expecting that even more of its 882 first-time, full-time freshmen will sign up for the program in the coming weeks. (Classes begin on September 8.)

Mercy has hired 11 mentors to staff the program this semester, giving each a caseload of at least 50 new freshmen. For the mentors who were part of the pilot program, those students will be added to the cohorts they worked with in the spring.

Krueger worked with 15 students in the spring, but expects to have 70 or more this fall. She expects to possibly see a little less of some of her second-semester freshmen now that they’ve gotten settled at Mercy, but can’t really predict how her caseload will correlate into workload. “It’s a big time management piece,” she says, “we just need to be able to keep on top of what comes our way and make sure we’re meeting with all our students regularly.”

Krueger and her peers were specifically hired to serve as mentors; they were not academic advisers or financial aid counselors who have been retrained and repurposed to staff PACT. Though they have been trained in student services, as well as academic and career advising, they the mentors are not meant to take the place of any already existing staff, says Bill Martinov, executive dean of student services and leadership. "Mentors are trained in these areas to better assist and navigate the student."

Martinov says the college plans to cap each mentor’s caseload at about 100 students, which he considers small enough to allow mentors to get to know each and every one of their students.

Academic advisers, career counselors and financial aid staffers at other institutions are often responsible for several hundred students, he says, “and those may be interactions that happen once or twice a semester.”

By going back to the same person for help on all of those issues, each student will have more than just a few interactions with his or her mentor each semester, he says. “The student knows and trusts the mentor, and the mentor knows the student’s story from beginning to end.… They know the different facets and aspects of that student’s life.”

If the level of individualized attention that students in the pilot program got from their mentors is what many more hope for this fall and beyond, the larger caseloads could prove to be a challenge.

Last spring, during his first semester at Mercy’s Dobbs Ferry campus -- in Westchester County, north of New York City -- Gallardo did more than just meet occasionally with Krueger to sign up for classes or handle problems with his financial aid package.

Mentor and mentee bonded over shared academic interests. Krueger graduated from Mercy in 2004 with a bachelor’s in criminal justice and Gallardo is a criminal justice major who hopes to go on to become a police officer, an FBI agent or a lawyer.

She helped him study for tests and do his homework. She proofread his essays. He visited PACT’s offices almost every day. “I need to sit with somebody to do my work,” he says. “Without Caitlin I would’ve needed to get tutors but I might not have known where to go to get one.”

Gallardo had a 3.0 GPA during the spring semester, which he says is far better than he did in high school and is “all thanks to PACT” and the support he’s received from Krueger on all levels. “It’s like having a best friend in college helping you with things you need help with,” he adds.

Retention, Graduation -- and Recruitment

Matthew Walker, 19, played basketball in high school and always had coaches helping him along, keeping him responsible and accountable. But he entered a vacuum of little personal attention when he got to college.

He admits that during his first semester at Mercy’s Bronx campus, he “started hanging around with the wrong guys,” classmates he describes as “the ones who would go to class late or not do their work or wouldn’t show up to class at all on any given day.”

He says he was going to campus “just to hang out” but not to go to class or to study. “I was fresh out of high school and not really knowing what I was doing.… I wasn’t focusing on books or work.”

But, partway through that semester, he met George Moton, a senior assistant director of PACT. Moton chastised Walker “for not doing what I was supposed to be doing” and hired him to work in the PACT office. There, Walker says, Moton “started watching me and getting on top of me to do my work.”

In the spring, Moton invited Walker to join the PACT pilot. Ever since, the student says, “George has been my shadow.”

Moton has helped him handle financial aid concerns, register for classes, plot a course for his major in business and beyond toward business and law school. Moton “just makes sure I get to class on time.… He’ll proofread my essays, he’ll call me to ask about my classes and to ask me if I've got any assignments.”

Without his mentor, Walker says, “I don’t think I would’ve lasted long” at Mercy or in college in general.

Gallardo also points to his mentor’s help as an essential piece of what’s kept him at Mercy. When he enrolled last spring, he planned to spend a few semesters at the college before transferring to a bigger institution, perhaps to the State University of New York’s campuses at Binghamton or Buffalo.

But, with the personalized attention he’s gotten from Krueger and PACT, he’s decided not to transfer. “I’m graduating here, I’m staying here,” he says. “By the time I graduate -- hopefully it’s going to be January 2013 -- I’m going to be set and ready to go, I’m going to be prepared.”

Beyond retention and graduation, though, Mercy’s administrators hope the program will be a major draw to get students to apply and enroll.

Anecdotally, it seems to be working. Martinov, the dean who oversees student services, says he’s seen “direct interest in the PACT program coming from potential students and their parents.” The college advertises the program on commuter trains into New York City and has developed an elaborate brochure it includes in its mailings to high school students.

As Cline, the president puts it, "everyone who's been to college says, 'Boy, if I had had something like that, college would've been so much more manageable.' "

She adds, "Parents want this for their kids, students want this for themselves.... People are going to come to Mercy and stay at Mercy because of PACT."

 

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