Building Bonds to Last a Lifetime
By David Ogul
Fawad Alizada doesn’t mince words when talking about the benefits of the Cal State San Marcos Faculty Mentoring Program.
“The mentor program is a big reason why I am the first person in my family of 10 brothers and sisters to graduate from college,” said Fawad, who fled Afghanistan and lived in a United Nations-run refugee camp before settling in Carlsbad as a young boy.
Fawad, 25, graduated with a history degree from CSUSM this past spring. Today, he is studying for his master’s degree in the history of international relations, with a focus on the transnational history of terrorism, at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He plans on becoming a university professor.
Fawad was one of 161 CSUSM students who took part in the Faculty Mentoring Program during the 2015-16 academic year, all of them first-generation college students and many of them veterans, disabled, or receiving financial aid. Despite such challenges, participants go on to earn a degree at rates far higher than the general student population.
That’s because the program is far more complex than engaging in a few casual conversations. Orientations are held over the first several weeks of the fall or spring semester. Workshops follow in the months ahead on everything from preparing resumes and cover letters to preparing for graduate school and careers. At luncheons, coffee klatches and ice cream socials, students discuss their backgrounds and insecurities, developing lasting bonds with mentors who learn firsthand about the challenges facing a new generation of CSUSM students.
“For first-generation students, many who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, college can be very alienating,” said Dr. Michelle Ramos Pellicia, Faculty Mentoring Program Faculty Fellow and a faculty member in the Department of Modern Language Studies. “You’re away from home for the first time in your life, and for some, it’s like being in a different country because you don’t really understand the culture.”
The program, established in 1991, last year paired 135 mentors with students based on interests, backgrounds and other factors. Ramos Pellicia and Program Coordinator Sonia Perez spend days reading through applications from new and waitlisted students, the biggest challenge being a lack of mentors to meet demand.
“A lot of these students are facing so many challenges in their life,” Perez said. “It’s critical that they have a close relationship with a professor who can serve as a mentor, who you can talk to and who you can count on. Not only are you finding someone who will always be there for you, you’re also establishing a lifelong friendship.”
That’s what happened to Fawad. He sought out Dr. Ibrahim Al-Marashi, a popular associate professor of Middle East history who is creating the next generation of scholars to understand the intricacies and nuances involved in that part of the world.
“I politely begged him if he could be my mentor, and he agreed,” Fawad said. “We’ve become very good friends. Whenever I had a problem or needed advice, I’d come to him. He helped me during the process of applying to graduate school. He was invaluable.”
Fawad’s experience was typical. And it underscores CSUSM’s commitment to ensuring student success.
“There is no class a student can take that tells you how to apply to graduate school or how to navigate a college education, and that is one reason that working with a mentor is so important,” Al-Marashi said. “But the program also allows you to develop a friendship that wouldn’t be possible through normal office hours.”
“There is great satisfaction in knowing that perhaps in some small way you could be making a difference in a young person’s life.”
-- Dr. Rajnandini Pillai
Melissa Estrada had dropped out of college once before.
“I’m a first-generation college student, and a lot of this was new to me,” she said. “I wasn’t familiar with the support services that were available and I never really became comfortable.”
That changed when she enrolled at CSUSM more than a decade later. And a big reason why was the Faculty Mentoring Program that paired her with Dr. Rajnandini Pillai, a professor of management who also serves as executive director and founding member of CSUSM’s Center for Leadership Innovation and Mentorship Building.
“My whole experience with Dr. Raj was amazing,” said Melissa, 33, who majored in Global Business Supply Chain Management and earned her degree last spring. “I could call her up or drop in her office just about any time. She was always there for me. And not only did we discuss my classes and my future goals, but also other daily struggles at work and home. Dr. Raj helped guide me through my journey here at Cal State San Marcos, and I am more than thankful for the experience.”
Pillai said the experience was just as rewarding for her.
“I found Melissa to be a very strong young woman who faced many challenges in her personal and professional life but was determined to overcome them and achieve her goal of graduating from the business school,” Pillai said. “I am in awe of her. I think we ended up inspiring one another.”
“Working with Melissa was wonderful,” she continued. “We’ve become good friends and I hope to remain a positive influence in her life.”
Melissa, who is employed as a coordinator with an Encinitas-based company that provides an array of services ranging from CPR training to environmental health and safety programs, said the Faculty Mentoring Program is typical of what she found at CSUSM.
“Cal State San Marcos is a great school, and the Faculty Mentoring Program is just one example of how they are looking out for you to succeed,” she said.
“What stands out to me about how I have evolved through our mentorship is the realization that I can take on new challenges and meet them.”
-- Madeline Rayón
Madeline Rayón signed up with the Faculty Mentoring Program almost as soon as she transferred from Palomar College in the fall of 2013. Her pairing with Dr. Sharon Hamill proved instrumental in Madeline earning a degree in psychology last spring. Now Madeline is in graduate school, where Hamill continues to serve as her faculty mentor.
“The Faculty Mentoring Program has given me the opportunity to gain more opportunities,” she said. “It allowed me to meet Dr. Hamill. It allowed me to discover my passion. It allowed me to apply to graduate school, and it allowed me to attend graduate school. I really can’t say enough about it.”
That’s quite a change from when she first came CSUSM. A first-generation college student who lacked confidence, Madeline said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she arrived. Then she took an Introduction to Psychology course that piqued her interest. Before long, she changed her major and was introduced to Hamill, who became her mentor. Madeline interviewed hundreds of high school students while working with Hamill on an ongoing project focusing on high school students’ mental and physical health, including how their health is impacted by being caregivers in their family. Under Hamill’s guidance, Madeline also worked on an independent project investigating the feelings of guilt among first-generation college students.
Hamill called her experiences with Madeline “life changing.”
“Maddy has been a gem from the start,” she said. “Her intelligence, dedication and sense of humor have been inspirational to me. Her insights into the experiences of first-generation college students and her commitment to understanding the college experience of students from multiple ethnic backgrounds has fueled my own long-held interests in these topics.”
Hamill may find herself working with her protégé in the future. Madeline said her experiences at Cal State San Marcos have motivated her to become a professor of psychology.
Hamill said the Faculty Mentoring Program has been instrumental in changing so many lives for the better.
“It is an exceptional program, a program that provides access, it provides structure, it provides support, and it not only provides support for students, but also for members of the faculty,” she said.