Cougar Connect Offers Vital Connections for Students, Alumni
By Tim Meehan
One of the significant benefits to attending a major university is its extensive alumni network, and Cal State San Marcos is no different in that regard.
The university recently rolled out a new program called Cougar Connect: CSUSM Mentorship Program. It’s a partnership between the Career Center and Alumni Engagement, and the early results are that it could become one the most popular features of what is already one of the most connected universities in the west.
“Cougar Connect is such a great way to bring students together with alumni, as well as the CSUSM community,” said Diana Sanchez, who is the director of the Career Center. “The potential opportunities for providing career and professional coaching are endless. The connections made here could link students to internships or potential career goals, or to other professionals in fields of interest.”
CSUSM is an institution that doesn’t forget its students once they graduate. On the contrary, there’s a strong feeling among its membership that once you’re a Cougar, you’re always a Cougar.
So while obtaining a degree from CSUSM holds a certain sense of pride in and of itself, it helps to maneuver through life knowing you have a support system on a larger scale.
“In my 30 years of working on this campus, the CSUSM community has proven time and again how sincerely we all care about the success of our students and alumni,” Sanchez said. “I am confident that Cougar Connect will demonstrate that commitment once again.”
Mentorship has proven to be a significant factor in determining future success of college graduates. While in school, the relationships developed through mentoring contribute to academic and personal success.
Upon graduation, career opportunities and networking are invaluable to someone looking to create a niche in their field of study.
“From the alumni perspective, this provides the opportunity to give back in a way that our alums can see an immediate impact,” said Michelle Romans, CSUSM’s director of Alumni Engagement. “For our students, this gives them access to a type of guidance they never knew they always needed. They get to meet alumni who had the same major or are in the industry they want to go into after graduation. This program gives alumni the opportunity to share the wisdom gained from their educational and professional experiences, and students get to benefit from those experiences.”
There are already more than 200 alumni signed up for the program. The immediate goal is to set up thousands of students once word gets out.
The early feedback from students has confirmed the ease of registering and navigating through the platform.
CSUSM has gone above and beyond to help the local community during the unsteadiness of the COVID-19 crisis. While it might seem like the alumni engagement program was rolled out to primarily help the class of 2020 due to the unprecedented final semester, the program was designed to debut around the beginning of the year.
“We were planning to roll it out at this time and it was serendipitous that with all the new challenges they are facing, students and new alumni will have this easy way to reach out to mentors for additional assistance using the Helping Hands feature,” Sanchez said. “I am incredibly proud of the generosity demonstrated by the CSUSM community; in how selflessly alumni, faculty and staff dedicate their time and energy toward student success. Cougar Connect is just one more shining example of this.”
The online platform for the program is run by a system called PeopleGrove. It includes the aforementioned Helping Hands feature, which allows students to request help from the mentors in the system.
In similar platforms, a student will request help from a specific source. With this program, the student sends out a request and it goes to out to the entire community. The student then gets an offer for help from an alum, and then it’s up to the student to accept the conversation through email.
“Looking back to when I was in undergrad, I wish I had a mentor or more guidance so that I wouldn’t waste time on trying to figure everything out on my own,” said Joanna Lynne Ballesta, a CSUSM biological sciences major from the class of 2016. “I’m the first in my family to attend college and graduate so I wasn’t able to turn to my parents for help since they did not experience going to school in the United States. I’m sure there are other students who are in my shoes, and with this program, I'm hoping that my advice or guidance can be useful for students.”
There is also a Student Financial Relief Fund option where alumni can donate money to a number of different funds after they have helped a student.
“In such uncertain times, students need guidance and need to be encouraged from as many sources as possible,” said Romans, who remarked how she missed out on opportunities as an undergrad with the lack of a mentor. “It is important for us that the class of 2020 knows that we are there for them and we support them, and Cougar Connect is one of those ways to provide that support.”
Nathaniel Keifer-Wheals was a business administration major at CSUSM. The 2009 graduate has been involved with the university since he left and is already signed up for Cougar Connect.
His intention with the program is to make the journey a little bit easier for each student he comes into contact with.
“I was always proud to be a CSUSM grad and to be a part of the university, even after graduating more than 11 years ago,” Keifer-Wheals said. “What I have seen of CSUSM’s response during the pandemic perfectly aligns with what I would expect from an institution that strives to give equal access to a high quality education in an innovative and meaningful way. In my opinion, CSUSM has gone above and beyond in every area a student might experience a need during this time. I have never been more proud to be associated to the university and for it to be the vehicle I give back to my community.”
Mentorship itself is not new to CSUSM. There are existing mentorship programs within the various colleges that have been successful for some time.
Cougar Connect is a larger program that Sanchez and Romans have been wanting to do for a few years. Hours of vetting systems, setting up participants and now promoting the project have given birth to yet another great feature of this campus.
“It is everything to me,” Romans said of her pride in CSUSM. “I feel so fortunate to be a part of the CSUSM community. The pride is there for me literally every single day of my life. But when projects like this come together – projects that years of work have gone into – the sense of pride is indescribable. So much work has been put into this, especially by the Career Center.
“It is amazing to see the CSUSM community come together to give our alumni ways to give back, and to give our students much-needed guidance from someone who looks like them, has been through this before, potentially even sharing the same struggles and overcoming them.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
firstname.lastname@example.org | Office: 760-750-7314