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Building a Mentoring Program for First-Generation College Students

By March 4, 2020

By: Dr. Matthew Hurwitz, Director of the River Hawk Scholars Academy at UMass Lowell

This past fall, we launched a pilot mentoring initiative here at UMass Lowell to match 20 Salesforce employees working out of the Boston area with 20 students in our first-gen academic program, River Hawk Scholars Academy. Our objective was to create a space for first-gen students to receive guided support in learning what it means to succeed in college and beyond.

When I started talking with Emily White, Director of Philanthropy Partnerships at, about this idea, we knew we wanted to create a mentoring structure flexible enough to allow each mentoring match to find their own way into their relationship-building, but structured enough to ensure each matched pair was moving towards the same objectives. We also knew that an added challenge here would be creating the space for our first-year, first-gen students to feel empowered through this program even as they were finding their footing on campus, as college students, for the first time.

Salesforce mentors meet with River Hawk Scholars Academy students

None of this is easy. Building relationships of trust takes time. Helping students see the value of a mentor, let alone one who might have no ties to the university (though some of our Salesforce mentors are indeed alumni), is not automatic. Asking people to connect primarily through the use of technology instead of in person and asking busy people to align their schedules to do so takes patience. And getting our students to persist in this relationship, to feel comfortable talking with someone they will likely perceive as not just successful but as someone who made it through college and is making it in life, can be downright intimidating – especially for students who are more likely to struggle with imposter syndrome, the feeling that they are not quite “college material.”

1:1 mentoring session at River Hawk Scholars Academy

1:1 mentoring session at River Hawk Scholars Academy

And yet, here we are, midway into this experiment in seeing what kind of impact 20 amazing, difference-making Salesforce mentors can make in the lives of 20 of our students…and, frankly, what kind of impact those 20 trailblazing students can make on their mentors. As these matched pairs move through our program, they wend their own way through learning where their matched person comes from, what motivates them, where they might be heading next. They connect at least once a month to discuss, among other things:

  • What success means
  • The tribulations and rewards of being a college student
  • How to forge a path from college to career

At this midway point of their experience, I asked them – mentors and mentees – how they’re doing and what this experience has meant to them so far. Here is what one mentee and one mentor shared:

“Having a mentor has been an enriching experience, especially since my mentor works in the field that I aspire to work in. My mentor and I talk pretty often and she even gave me the chance to shadow her in her workplace (which was a really fun learning experience). As a freshman, it’s difficult to know which direction I am supposed to go in, especially since I am the first in my family to choose this type of career, but having a connection with someone in the field has made things a lot clearer. I feel like I have someone to guide me through the process and answer the questions that I have along the way. I believe that this connection will last even after I graduate from UMass Lowell.”
– Jayla Galvez, UML student, Computer Science

“Since entering this program as a mentor, I feel useful each time I answer the questions I was too embarrassed to ask when I was a first-generation college graduate 13 years ago. Moreover, I feel fortunate that someone who is where I was over a decade ago trusts me enough to ask me these questions knowing that I’m both a sympathetic ear and a knowledgeable resource for them.”
– Kristin Sutton, Account Executive, Salesforce Commerce Cloud

40 mentors and mentees meet at River Hawk Scholars Academy

40 mentors and mentees meet at River Hawk Scholars Academy

There’s still a lot for us to figure out and improve upon; don’t get me wrong. We are aiming to improve on this program to better facilitate mentor-mentee communication and student growth, and to potentially scale up and involve additional industry partners. But we also know that there’s a lot going right so far: you can hear it in these voices and the tapestry of connection and opportunity they’re creating for themselves, mentor and mentee alike. It sounds like they’re finding their way, together.

Interested in starting a mentoring program at your institution? Here’s some advice on how to approach your own mentoring program to help first-gen students succeed:

  1. Design your mentoring program to lay the groundwork for trusting relationships.
    So much of the success of your program will depend on the degree to which your mentees come to trust your mentors (and visa-versa). Consider the unique populations your program will be working with and what it will take to (often quickly) establish some baseline trust that can evolve over the life of your program.
  2. Align mentoring activities with your program objectives.
    Be purposeful in what you ask your mentors and mentees to do together. I recommend that you create some kind of activities for them, to make sure that they move people towards your program’s objectives. And, make sure you have objectives for your program!
  3. Build a program for the real people who will be involved in it.
    Each of the individuals in your mentoring program bring their own motives and personality quirks. Understand what you can about the populations this program will serve (both mentors and mentees) and build a program for them and not for the people you imagine you’re serving.
  4. Balance both structure and freedom.
    A program that is too rigid will not be adaptable and will inevitably struggle when the messiness of human relationships and busy schedules causes things to go off track. A program that is too open-ended will lead to frustrations and mentoring relationships that flounder rather than thrive.
  5. Learn as you go.
    Build in opportunities to reflect and course correct. Adapt, on-the-go, when you can, and make peace with the fact that some necessary changes can’t be implemented until after your pilot year. You can start with a pilot, then survey participants, and iterate based on feedback.

Follow the River Hawk Scholars Academy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @umlrhsa (The river hawk, as you may have guessed, is our mascot.)

Coming to Higher Ed Summit 2020 in Indianapolis? Make sure to attend my session on “Forging Paths Together: Mentoring First-Gen Students & Pub/Priv Partnerships” for a deeper dive on the River Hawk mentoring program.


Dr. Matthew Hurwitz

Dr. Matthew Hurwitz is the director for UMass Lowell’s first-generation college student academic support program, River Hawk Scholars Academy, and a faculty member in English. His mission with the Academy is to make evidence-based decisions about interventions for first-gen students that are supported by robust research and that will make a real difference in the lives of students.