March 07, 2018, BY Beth Kaszuba

Watch how GenFirst! mentors are making connections and changing lives at Bucknell.

On the surface, Tucker Leighty-Phillips '18 and Richard Rinehart might appear to have little in common, beyond a connection to Bucknell.

One is a student, and one is staff. There's a gap in their ages. And, while Rinehart directs the University's Samek Art Museum, Leighty-Phillips, an English major, confesses to knowing little about art.

Yet the two share a few surprising similarities — including the fact that they are both the first people in their immediate families to attend college.

That common ground drew Leighty-Phillips and Rinehart to Bucknell's GenFirst! mentoring program, which pairs first-gen faculty and staff with students who navigate college life without the benefit of close family members to provide guidance.

The program, developed by Carmen Henne-Ochoa, Bucknell's diversity, equity & inclusion fellow and a first-generation college student herself, gives mentees access to an on-campus ally who can answer questions about everything from finding lost IDs and handling social situations to locating transportation to off-campus events.

"Research suggests that mentoring and having a connection to faculty and staff are good for students' academic well-being," Henne-Ochoa said, adding that Bucknell has close to 400 first-gen students enrolled. "Our goal is to position each individual to be successful here."

For Leighty-Phillips and Rinehart, the program led to a friendship rooted in shared interests and experiences that became apparent when they met.

"We planned to meet for 20 minutes in the Bison Café," Rinehart said. "Three hours later, we finally came out of that conversation."

Matching Mentors to Mentees
Students who would like to be matched with a mentor can visit a web page that features pictures of volunteer faculty and staff. Each photo is accompanied by three or four words the mentors choose to sum up their personalities.

Curious, Fun-Loving, Survivor

Creative, Socially Conscious, Observant

Socially Awkward, Caring, Optimistic

Using these descriptors and linked profiles, students identify their top four picks, and Henne-Ochoa does her best to create good teams.

GenFirst! mentee Tehani Gunaratna ’20, left, often meets mentor Emily Dietrich at off-campus restaurants. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

Political science major Tehani Gunaratna '20 was drawn to staff member Emily Dietrich's self-description: Level-headed, Accepting, Compassionate.

"I liked Emily's adjectives the best," said Gunaratna, who first met Dietrich, externship program director with the Career Development Center, at a GenFirst! event held during New Student Orientation. "It was the first event I attended on campus," Gunaratna added. "At the end, everyone was crying, because a lot of faculty and staff said really touching things about their own experiences."

Building a More Inclusive Bucknell
A successful mentor-mentee relationship isn't necessarily rooted in shared academic or career interests, Henne-Ochoa noted. Common hobbies, faith traditions and outlooks can be more important than major and department affiliation.

Eris Balic ’21, left, joins mentor Chris Martine for a game of basketball. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

For Professor Chris Martine, biology, and mentee Eris Balic '21, who majors in physics, family roots in New York City created an initial bridge for conversation.

"We know what a good bagel tastes like," Martine joked. "We have a common cultural vocabulary."

Balic, whose parents emigrated from Montenegro, sought a mentor because he grew up in a neighborhood with other first-generation Americans, where few people had attended college.

"Getting started at Bucknell, classes were the easy part," he said. "Doing everything else is the daunting task. Having a mentor is reassuring."

Along with the mentoring option, GenFirst! at Bucknell offers students the opportunity to attend a retreat, "storm" a museum to get comfortable with art galleries, and even take boot camp exercise classes with fellow first-gen students.

"It's a fantastic program," said Rinehart. "It's a tremendous benefit to the students, but also to faculty and staff, and the overall culture of Bucknell. It helps to create a more inclusive University."

For Gunaratna, having a mentor "made Bucknell so much more of a home. As a first-year student, you're surrounded by people who are trying to figure out the same things. It's nice to have an adult on campus you can turn to when you have questions."

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