For many, Zoom has become a premier meeting space in the digital age. For George Barraza, it is his direct connection to the students he mentors – a place that extends beyond academics and is considered a safe space, in many ways, for the students he serves.
A social work senior, Barraza is completing his internship with the College of Health and Human Services’ Advising and Career Development Center. In this role, he serves as a peer mentor to first-time freshmen.
Although the program has existed since 2017, this is the first time that mentoring has been done completely online, due to the shift to virtual instruction. Barraza meets with his mentees twice a month, and says the experience thus far has been challenging, but above all else – fulfilling.
“One of the goals of the peer mentor program is to have students feel a sense of belonging to campus, and obviously they can’t physically do that right now, but what we can do is provide the right resources for them and provide support in other ways,” Barraza said. “I mentor about 20 students, and some of them will request extra meetings or more time with me, just to talk, and sometimes it’s not related to their grades or classes. Yes, I’m their mentor, but I want them to also know that I’m here to provide emotional and mental support – and I can be their friend, too.”
Since in-person classes and activities were canceled in March, the Advising and Career Development Center has seen a surge in students requesting advising services, more now than at any time in the past. Robert PageSmith, coordinator of the Advising and Career Development Center, said the center has seen over 3,300 students virtually since March – a 30% increase than what they typically saw pre-pandemic.
“With everything being online now, we’re seeing more students during appointments, workshops and meetings – and especially during walk-in hours in the last nine months than ever before,” PageSmith said. “It seems that students are more likely to attend meetings through Zoom and are more comfortable asking questions via an online medium.”
The Advising and Career Development Center provides academic support to students in a multitude of ways, including the peer mentor program that Barraza is a part of, as well as one-on-one advising, career exploration and guidance toward graduating.
Interning at the center is a full circle experience for Barraza, who also received advising services from the center just a few years ago as he contemplated his own academic future. In fact, Barraza’s academic counselor at the time was PageSmith himself.
“It’s really nice to know Robert now at a different level, as my supervisor now instead of my counselor,” Barraza said. “After all, he helped get me here to this point. Now I can take some of the lessons he taught me, and implement it with my mentees.”
In addition to PageSmith, Barraza counts many of his counselors from Orange Cove High School among his inspirations. He recalls the feeling of comfort and belonging those counselors provided him and decided to follow in their footsteps by also pursuing a social work degree. His ultimate goal is to one day return to his small hometown roots and assist students at the college-level, particularly first-generation college students just like himself. He says putting into practice what he has learned in the classroom has elevated his experience as a peer mentor.
“I’m rooting for these students,” Barraza said. “I want to help them because in many ways, that used to be me. As a first-generation college student, I understand their struggle. I think if I can impact and help just one student a year or even a couple, that would make this all worth it.”
PageSmith says providing extra support to students who need it is one of the fundamental elements of the peer mentor program, which helps first-time freshmen – who are in remedial math and English courses – with a smooth transition into the college environment. In addition to meeting with their regular academic counselors, the students receive exclusive individualized support from their peer mentor. The goal is to ultimately build strong connections that nurture them throughout their Fresno State experience.
“A lot of students are struggling right now and feeling isolated because they can’t be here on campus,” PageSmith said. “So by having our peer mentors meet with them every other week, they’re not only bringing resources to the table, but more importantly, a listening ear. And with that, we’re hoping those students will slowly open up and say ‘this is somebody who cares about me. This is somebody who wants to help me.’ We want to give students the resources to succeed – in the classroom and in life.”
Another essential resource the center provides is the Probation Student Program, which provides assistance to students whose GPA falls below 2.0. Graduate interns, also with the Department of Social Work Education, provide individual goal planning to help guide the students back into good academic standing.
PageSmith notes that the social work interns gain just as much in return, as what they give out – a true win-win situation for all the students involved.
“Here at our center, we want to empower our social work interns with the right tools and experiences so they can in turn, empower others,” PageSmith said, adding, “George is a great example of that. He has a very deep, caring heart and goes above and beyond for his students, and I’m so excited he found his purpose.”
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