Story by Averee Marquez
Going to college is an exciting opportunity. Yet the experience can also mean living away from home for the first time, managing the pressures of higher-level course work, and finding ways to engage with a whole new community. For students who lack a strong support system, the challenges of college can be overwhelming.
That’s exactly what faculty in the School of Social Work were seeing among undergraduate students. “As a result of findings within our BSW program data, we were concerned about differences by race/ethnicity on students’ outcomes and opportunities,” said Associate Professor Anne Williford.
So in Fall 2019, the school launched Elevate, a group-based peer mentoring program to encourage the retention and success of these student populations in the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program. Elevate is jointly coordinated by Williford, BSW Program Director Brenda Miles, and Student Success Coordinator Evan Lowe.
“Mentoring is widely recognized as an important support for the retention and success of undergraduate students,” Williford said, “especially for underrepresented populations, who may also be experiencing additional challenges like housing instability, food insecurity, mental health issues and trauma.”
Although faculty are responsible for administration, the Elevate program is largely student-directed. The students drive the agenda for each meeting. Peer mentors share life experiences and advocate for others to achieve academically, socially, and emotionally.
Having been a student of color at CSU himself, Lowe had a deep understanding of student needs. “I wanted to build structure within this program that I could have used when I was a student,” he said. “I want Elevate to be that resource and community pillar where these students can come and not only feel that they have a place to belong and feel safe, but a place to engage and make true changes around them.”
Peer mentoring crucial key to success
At the start of the Fall 2019 semester, senior BSW student Valerie Villalobos joined Elevate as a mentor. She felt drawn to helping others at a young age. “I was the 6-year-old child that would stay up crying during stormy nights because I knew there were people without homes to find shelter in,” said Villalobos.
An influential part of her decision to major in social work was her younger sibling’s encounter with addiction. “Having my own little brother fall into the arms of addiction shed an entirely new light on addiction for me. I couldn’t go through that experience without in turn finding a way to do something to help individuals, families, and communities.”
Villalobos passionately believes that support groups can leave a lasting impression on someone. “Finding the right people who can share your struggles with and believe in your ability to succeed is so crucial. I was motivated by the prospect of connection and support, because those two things alone can save you from many tough situations in life, not just in academia.”
Third year student Karen Guadarrama also always felt naturally drawn to reaching out, with the hopes of changing the lives around her. “I come from a small town with a population of low-income families of color, in which there are very few resources. I would like to give back to my community and help them more than I was able to get helped,” she said.
Her decision to attend CSU was impacted by a CSU summer program called Upward Bound. Through this program, Guadarrama personally observed the core values of inclusion and diversity that Colorado State University represented. Now she continues to see those same values in the Elevate program.
Guadarrama recalls their last meeting to be the most memorable. Everyone was individually sharing personal challenges they faced as students while attending CSU. “I shared about a time where I was the only person of color in a room with 4 other blue-eyed white students for an interview, and how I found that to be a challenge.”
Guaderrama shared with the Elevate group that with the advice from a peer, she felt strengthened to recognize feelings of discomfort but also view the situation as an accomplishment. “Yes, I a person of color, have made it this far and am breaking stereotypes that have been engraved within us people of color,” she said.
“My biggest takeaway from this program was to never be afraid to be who you are and always be aware that the harder you work the greater you will feel. I keep in mind that I have made it this far through my hard work,” said Guadarrama.
Building new connections comes naturally among peers
Third year student Annastasia Cruz also was instantly impressed by the social setting implemented through Elevate. She found opportunities to build new connections came naturally. “Everyone is always willing to help one another out,” said Cruz. “Plus, you get to know new individuals who are in the social work program, so you feel more connected when you go to new classes and recognize a familiar face.”
Cruz recalled a discussion between everyone in the group sharing their experiences as first generation students at the university. “It was very uplifting and motivational, because everyone went around and shared their stories. I feel like we all were empowered by each other. It was a great bonding experience,” said Cruz.
“I learned how important it is, connecting with individuals in the community and how to communicate in group settings,” Cruz said. “I plan to pay it forward and try to mentor others I meet in my future career, to provide assistance in being successful at building cohesiveness in groups.”
“It is vital that all students feel a sense of belonging and a sense of their own worth on campus,” said BSW Program Director Brenda Miles. “The community building and support of Elevate meets that need by providing peer mentoring designed to help students navigate the social, cultural, academic, and professional aspects of higher education.”
The Elevate program’s network has continued to support students through the COVID-19 pandemic, when Colorado State University moved to remote teaching and learning. The group connected several times through online meetings, and students received emergency financial support during the crisis.
About the School of Social Work
Since the first baccalaureate social work major was first offered in 1968, Colorado State University’s School of Social Work has made a continuous effort to develop and maintain a program that is responsive to the standards of the social work profession, to the needs of human services agencies and clients in the state, and to the land-grant mission and goals of CSU. Our mission is to provide exemplary education, applied research, and transformative outreach to advance social, environmental, and economic justice; promote equity and equality; alleviate oppression; and enhance human health and well-being across local and global community systems.