By Meaghan MacDonald-Pool, MSU News Service
BOZEMAN — A Montana State University senior recently received a coveted fellowship for her efforts working with first-year students.
Nicole Hopkins is one of five students nationally to receive the Jordan Smith Undergraduate Student Fellowship from the National Resource Center for the First-year Experience and Students in Transition. The award recognizes students across America who show leadership and promise in their efforts to support first-year students. Recipients will attend the center’s annual conference Feb. 12-15 in Orlando, Florida, where they will be recognized and attend events to advance their skills.
“I can’t believe I received this fellowship,” said Hopkins, an English writing major from Sacramento, California. “I am excited to attend the conference and see what kind of information and lessons I can get out of it.”
Hopkins has been involved with MSU’s Sophomore Surge [montana.edu] program since the first semester of her sophomore year and finished her fifth semester in December. Sophomore Surge is a joint effort between the Office of Academic Affairs [montana.edu] and the Division of Student Success [montana.edu]. Sophomores, juniors and seniors can join the program as mentors.
The purpose of the program is to apply individually tailored support to the social, academic and personal needs of first-year students throughout the crucial first year of college. The program supports first-year students in their transition to college through exploration, examination and development of their identity, interests, strengths, values and goals, according to Judi Haskins, director of Sophomore Surge.
First-year students enroll in a required three-credit university seminar core course taught by MSU faculty. A mentor is paired with that section of the seminar to serve as the Surge Mentor. The mentor attends every class meeting of the seminar course and engages the mentees in the curriculum content and in out-of-class activities and engagement.
“What keeps me coming back and what is exciting about Surge is you get a new class every semester and have a new pool of students to influence and help out,” Hopkins said. “After every semester I reflect and think, ‘What can I do better for the next group?’”
Haskins has nominated other Surge mentors in the past but felt Hopkins had a good shot because of her long-term dedication to the program and her constant drive to want to learn, grow and continue to sharpen her skill set to be the best mentor she can possibly be.
“She is just a joy to be around and she has such a heart for students and helping others,” Haskins said. “She has kept with the program for five semesters because she’s so good at it and loves working with the students.”
Haskins said the Sophomore Surge program is important for the university’s goal of retention. She stated there has been plenty of research on peer mentors which find them a viable strategy in higher education institutions to increase retention rates and support the whole student as they transition to college life.
“The first-year of college can be overwhelming and challenging, and many students leave if they don’t find a support system or sense of belonging here,” Haskins said. “Surge mentors fill the role of a peer who has recently and successfully completed their own first year of college and can help the new freshmen navigate the transition to college."
Hopkins understands firsthand how the program can be effective for retention and making the first year of college easier.
Hopkins was often ill in her first semester. On top of that, she said, adjusting to new situations was difficult for her, and college was one of the greatest adjustments she had to endure. Feeling lost and missing so much class, she checked in with her Surge mentor, Isbah Khan, regularly to see what she was missing in some of her classes and made sure Khan was aware of how she was doing. Hopkins said Khan made her feel as if she wasn’t spiraling downward. Khan was a lifeline keeping her in connection to school and feeling grounded.
Khan recruited Hopkins for Sophomore Surge and, in Hopkins’ first semester, was her team leader. Hopkins said she learned much about mentoring from Khan, like exercising patience, being invested in the well-being of her mentees and being available to help — if students take the initiative to ask for it, which helps teach them to be self-sufficient.
Joining Sophomore Surge helped Hopkins get out of her comfort zone and become more involved at MSU. Along with her mentoring, she is the treasurer of her a cappella group and recently interned with the ePortfolio [montana.edu] program on campus, which helps students personalize their resumes as a way for their personalities to shine through when applying to jobs, internships or graduate school. A final project for Sophomore Surge mentors is to create an ePortfolio with highlights of what they got out of the program. She ran workshops for the mentors and said her mentoring skillset, such as communication and working with large groups of people, aided in her success with the internship.
This semester Hopkins will work with Academic Technology and Outreach [ato.montana.edu] to continue her work with ePortfolios and help introduce them to first-year students. After graduation, she hopes to attend graduate school, preferably at MSU in the adult and higher education program. Hopkins would like to work in a student affairs department and continue the work she is currently doing, making an impact on the students who need it most.
“It’s really neat to see people come to our workshops and ask ‘why do I need this?’ I love that question because I have an answer and worked all summer and semester for it,” she said about ePortfolios. “It’s nice to see the realization that this is super helpful and can make a difference in people’s careers.”