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'One person can make all the difference': Students reflect on mentorship program started during pandemic

This past semester, many first-year students were able to enter a difficult school year with guidance and support from older students.

Blue Devil Buddies, an initiative started this year by Duke Student Government, is a one-on-one mentorship program that matches incoming first-years with current students. The program aimed to foster relationships between mentors and first-year mentees before the fall semester so that incoming students could better acclimate to Duke.

“The value of an upperclassman who is invested in your personal well-being and acclimatation to campus is tremendous,” said Catherine McMillan, a junior and member of DSG who worked on the mentor training element of the program and served as a mentor herself. “One person can make all the difference to someone who may be struggling to make sense of this huge and intimidating place.” 

Mentors and mentees were paired partially based on academic interests in the hopes that upperclass students could provide useful recommendations for courses and student groups.

“I was able to make connections and network with a bunch of people I didn’t know,” first-year Kashyap Sreeram said. “When I came onto campus, I didn’t feel so alone because I knew I had someone who could help me out both academically and personally.”

DSG officers said that because of extensive planning before the program began, Blue Devil Buddies ran smoothly throughout the semester.

“In terms of upkeep, it really was very minimal,” said junior Christina Wang, DSG vice president of equity and outreach. “Honestly, I think the organic relationships that were created through the program sustained themselves and lived their natural course.”

Shrey Majmudar, DSG vice president of academic affairs, shared an anecdote that indicated to him how well-known the program was becoming. 

“I was having lunch in West Union with one of my first-year friends, Anu Aggarwal,” Majmudar said. “There were at least two people who walked by while we were having lunch and were like ‘Anu, is that your Blue Devil Buddy?’ And that just made my heart just glow and threw a huge smile on my face because I think that just kind of shows the power of the Blue Devil Buddies program.”

Despite the program’s success, the Blue Devil Buddy team experienced several challenges before the semester began. One issue was that initially more mentees signed up for the program than mentors.

“That was a huge challenge because we were like, ‘Oh my goodness we can’t leave mentees out in the dark.’ We wanted to make sure it was one of our foremost goals that every single mentee that wanted to be a part of the program got assigned to a mentor,” Majmudar said.

In order to bring in more mentors, DSG marketed the program on social media outlets and email listservs. 

Wang explained that after this effort, there were more mentors than mentees, creating a “mentor pool” for people who required a re-pairing. “In case things went south with a match, people would just reach out to us and ask to be re-matched,” Wang said. 

Majmudar said another challenge was that multiple mentors dropped out of the program after already being matched with a mentee.

“One [challenge] was the bizarre nature of this fall semester and the fact that many students were taking time off,” said Majmudar. “At the relative last minute when we would’ve hoped people to be connecting with their mentees, they all of a sudden announced ‘I can no longer be a mentor in the BDB program, I’ve decided last minute that I’m taking a semester off.’ You can imagine that’s very disruptive to the mentee.”

Over the summer, mentors were encouraged to meet with their mentees over Zoom or FaceTime. In order to foster engaging conversations, DSG sent mentors lists of conversation starters. Questions ranged from “What are you most nervous about coming to college?” to “If you were a vegetable, which one would you be?” 

One first-year reflected that while their Blue Devil Buddy was a great resource over the summer, communication all but dropped off as the semester kicked off. 

“The BDB was a great introduction to Duke student life and an amazing insight into the social scene,” first-year Sai Rachakonda said. “However after the semester started, my Blue Devil Buddy didn’t make an effort to reach out, and we never really met.”

Majmudar said that DSG tried to combat lack of engagement throughout the semester by reminding mentors to check in with their mentees and vice versa. 

“For the few who perhaps didn’t have that prolonged connection, what we did throughout the fall is we sent out a couple of emails around class selection time or others being like ‘Hey mentees, reach out to your mentors for advice.’ On the other hand, we reached out to mentors as well,” Majmudar said

Some mentors and mentees caught up regularly throughout the semester and were able to bond over shared interests.

“My mentee and I chatted pretty regularly throughout the first half of the semester,” McMillan said. “I checked in around LDOC and when midterms rolled around. My mentee did reach out to me a few times and we talked about topics such as social life, belonging, academics and the pandemic.”

Sophomore Sydney Hunt said that her relationship with her mentee was easy to maintain because they were both Pratt students and took the same math course during the fall semester. Hunt introduced her mentee to Duke eNable, a club that 3D prints prosthetics, and the two worked on the same team.

“I know that some of my other friends who were Blue Devil Buddy mentors either didn’t get a response back from their mentee or it was just like an awkward phone call, but her and I actually became good friends,” added Hunt. “We FaceTimed over break, would go on walks together and just talk about life a lot because I felt like we were very similar.”

Although Sreeram and his mentor didn’t share academic interests, they were still able to form a strong friendship. 

“We didn’t have the same academic interests at all,” Sreeram said. “But, our personalities were so similar. We spent all this time over the summer and she introduced me to all these aspects of Duke that I didn’t even know about and she helped me learn about myself. Seeing her inspires me to work towards being a better Duke student.”

Majmudar and Wang are hoping that Duke will continue to run the Blue Devil Buddies program in future years in a way that is compatible with the residential living system that Duke is in the process of developing. 

“As we look to the future, we have a very unique opportunity here––to be able to institutionalize Blue Devil Buddies within the fabric of a residential system,” Majmudar said. 

Majmudar explained that DSG’s vision for the program is that incoming first-years will be assigned to rising sophomore mentors who lived in their house or quad as first-years.

Majmudar said that he spoke directly with Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, and Mary Pat McMahon, vice president and vice provost for student affairs, in mid-November about continuing the program, and both were on board.

“Hopefully this will become an official thing two or three years from now,” Wang said. “We just have to lay the groundwork currently to make sure that can happen, but I think there’s support for it.”

McMillan said that she believes continuing the mentorship program could make a big difference in the way first-years experience their early months at Duke.

“Mentorship is an important way to build social and cultural capital,” McMillan reflected. “It’s a currency that can change the way you navigate spaces and conduct yourself. Blue Devil Buddies, I believe, was a powerful instrument of mobilizing upperclassmen to support incoming students.”

Navya Belavadi

Navya Belavadi is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.


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