When Christina Gard joined the faculty and staff of Southeastern University in 2012, one of her first tasks was to develop a mentoring program on campus.
One year later, Gard has succeeded and surpassed even her own expectations.
This past fall, more than 500 students participated in Connect, the name for the mentoring program Gard and her team developed. Beginning next week, more than 650 students will participate in the second semester of the program, with 86 faculty and staff members committed to mentoring.
"My expectations were blown out of the water," Gard said.
The program allows students to choose faculty and staff members with whom they want to meet, and it was created with detailed student input and direction. For instance, Gard had originally planned to implement a curriculum for Connect that students and mentors would cover during the 10 weeks they met. Student leaders overwhelmingly disagreed, saying they preferred the meetings to be about sharing life stories and building relationships.
"The students communicated what they wanted," Gard said.
Connect is designed to help students grow in the three primary areas of focus for student development: social, academic, and spiritual. Each week during chapel hour on Wednesday mornings, mentors and up to eight students meet at designated locations around campus to share their testimonies, talk about life goals, and address any other topic that might be of interest to students.
In lieu of a curriculum, Connect mentors are sent suggested questions each week that relate to life on campus. They also are encouraged to spend time in scripture or referring to the past week's readings in the Life Journal, the campus-wide Bible reading plan.
Gard said students received valuable wisdom and encouragement from their Connect groups in the fall. Hearing mentors share how they have struggled and failed, how they make major life decisions, and other topics showed students that their mentors are normal people who have overcome some of the same things with which they are wrestling.
Students also enjoyed the off-campus experiences that mentors planned. Each mentor was told to design an activity to share with the group. These ranged from pizza on the beach at sunset to watching the midnight showing of a new movie to a quiet dinner cooked by the mentor at their home.
Southeastern President Dr. Kent Ingle and his wife, Karen, invited their groups to their house for a meal. He said Connect embodies the student-focused mission of the university, and his weekly meetings with his group were a highlight on his schedule.
"One of my favorite parts about leading the connect group was engaging with the guys on a one-on-one basis," Dr. Ingle said. "Everyone had something to offer, whether it was insight on leadership or thoughts on culture, everyone contributed. The whole experience was amazing, and I can't wait to do it again!"
Dr. Beth Leslie, assistant professor of Business, said she enjoyed her Connect experience as a mentor and was surprised that she received as much encouragement from her students as they did from her.
"I thought I would be speaking into the lives of my group, but because of the interaction we had, it became a two-way street with my ladies also encouraging me," she said. "I am looking forward to this next semester when we get the opportunity, once again, to share with each other and grow as Christian women."
Gard said that going forward her team must be creative in accommodating the demand for Connect groups. There is barely enough meeting space on campus for the current number of groups, and Student Development might have to make another hour during the week available for Connect. Also, the female student response "has been through the roof," Gard said, and she has had to seek more female mentors after the original female groups filled up in less than 30 minutes.
"We're here for the students, and students are obviously hungry for it," she said.