Even though incoming first-years will be entering a campus making its way to normalcy, all the challenges of adjusting to college life will still be here.
Because of those challenges, Blue Devil Buddies, a mentorship program created by Duke Student Government last summer in response to COVID-19, is returning for a second year. The program, which algorithmically pairs incoming first-year students with current students before the fall semester, aims to foster relationships and ease the transition to college life.
“I think we always knew that [Blue Devil Buddies] was going to be done again,” said junior Effie Mehbod, co-leader of Blue Devil Buddies. “There was such a positive response to the program last year that it just made sense to keep it going.”
Last year’s cohort included over a thousand mentor and mentee pairs, according to junior Lana Gesinsky, the other co-leader of the program.
“It’s kind of like a household Duke name now. People actually use the terminology, which shows that the program works,” Gesinsky said. “If you say Blue Devil Buddy, everyone knows what that is.”
This year, Gesinsky and Mehbod hope to extend the program’s initial success and cement Blue Devil Buddies’ place in the Duke first-year experience for years to come. But following reports that some mentor-mentee pairs stopped talking once the fall semester started, their first priority is making sure mentor-mentee relationships are sustainable and “not just a summer thing,” Gesinsky said.
“Last year, we had a vision of it primarily being held over the summer. It was unclear how that connection would be maintained throughout the year,” Gesinsky explained. “And either people became friends with their Blue Devil Buddy and stayed in contact, or they didn’t and the program didn’t really continue.”
Some mentees last year complained that they couldn’t get in touch with their mentors once school started, Gesinsky said. They hope to prevent this drop-off in engagement in the fall semester by providing more support for mentors, including sending out weekly conversation starters and regular reminders to reach out to mentees.
“Ideally these turn into more natural friendships and they don’t necessarily need those [conversation starters],” Gesinsky said. “Once pairings begin, we’re hoping that the relationship takes off.”
They also hope that as the fear surrounding COVID-19 subsides and in-person meetings become more feasible, the relationships will more easily sustain themselves.
Further changes to this year’s programming focus on shifting the conversation away from COVID-19. Gesinsky and Mehbod plan to add a number of new questions to the survey used to pair mentors and mentees, such as “What are you most looking forward to post-pandemic?”
“[My Blue Devil Buddy and I] spoke about everything, but we also did spend a lot of time talking about COVID-19 logistics. And she had a lot of questions coming in about that, which makes sense,” Gesinsky said. “But it’ll be nice to have more time to talk about things other than COVID-19.”
Additional answer choices will also be added to questions such as “What’s your ideal Saturday night?” so that respondents can personalize their answers to a greater degree, and more thought will be put into the weighting of questions in the pairing algorithm.
Looking beyond this year, both Gesinsky and Mehbod echoed the program’s founders’ hopes to integrate Blue Devil Buddies into the housing system as part of the Next Generation Living and Learning 2.0 initiative and further institutionalize it at Duke. The long-term vision is that incoming first-years will be paired with mentors who lived in their dorms as first-years.
“Regardless of what ends up happening with Next Gen Living and Learning, we’re hoping that this continues to be a big thing at Duke,” Mehbod said. “It makes sense—it’s useful for incoming students, it creates more connections.”
“I hope that people stay friends with their Blue Devil Buddy,” Gesinsky added. “I hope that, even if you guys meet in their first-year and you’re a sophomore, by senior year, you’ll still have that friendship. That would be the ideal.”
The Blue Devil Buddies program leaders plan to open sign-ups and release the pairing survey in late June, with pairings released in mid-July.
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Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 118.