ST. PETER — Donte Curtis was certainly aware that he was one of few black freshmen on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus last school year.
But that’s not why he wanted to take part in the Mentoring for Student Success program, which pairs first-year minority students with faculty and staff who serve as mentors the whole school year.
“I understand the role of the mentor and what that can do for you,” said Curtis, a sophomore public accounting and religion major. “It was more about the support.”
Curtis had such an amazing experience working with his mentor, former assistant dean of admission Adam Lugsch-Tehle, that he’s now working with the Diversity Center on campus to expand and improve upon the program. They’re working on adding a peer-mentoring piece, setting up the freshmen with upper classmen who can offer their experiences on campus.
The idea behind Mentoring for Student Success came about by Virgil Jones, coordinator of multicultural recruitment and assistant director of admission. Jones and faculty Carolyn O’Grady and Sujay Rao noted that the college had an overall retention rate of 90 percent while the minority student retention rate was 60 percent.
Gustavus has bolstered its efforts to recruit a diverse student body. And Jones thought the addition of a mentoring program would help keep those students on campus, as well as create a meaningful connection between faculty and students.
“I think that one of the things we miss often in the world, but also in the transition from high school to college, is the understanding of each other’s humanity,” Jones said. “And I think that this program has made faculty and students to not think of (themselves) as one group and ‘the other,’ but to think of themselves as part of the same community.”
About 30 students per year participate, and the mentors and students meet at least once a month. Curtis and Lugsch-Tehle met much more often.
“I am a people person,” said Curtis, which some would describe as a gross understatement. “It was absolutely phenomenal. He was always picking my mind. He was always asking questions and encouraging me.”
Curtis popped into Lugsch-Tehle’s office often, even every day for a stretch of weeks. They’d talk about all kinds of things — “life stuff,” as Curtis put it.
“It was really just life lessons. It wasn’t structured,” Curtis said. “It was kind of just me going into his office and just (talking).”
Having that relationship was a great comfort, Curtis said. But for Curtis, it wasn’t about feeling different than his classmates.
His mom, a 1980 graduate of Gustavus, told him that when she went to school there, there were eight or nine black people, and they all stuck together. There’s about a 15 percent non-white population now, Jones said. But the predominately white student population isn’t as much of a factor now as it was for his mother, he said.
“It was more important for them to hang together then than it is now,” Curtis said. “I kind of just shrugged it off. ... I really wasn’t thinking about it. The (welcoming) people here kind of overruled that.”
Curtis knows that not all non-white students feel as comfortable with the disparity. That’s why the retreat held for the mentor program before each school year is so important.
Jones said students self-identify on entrance forms as non-white, and they are invited to participate in the mentoring program. During the retreat, for some of the students, it’s the first time they’ve been together in a group where the majority of them aren’t white, Jones said.
“There’s this revelation that I’m not the only one,” Jones said. “I think it gives them a sense of community within a larger community. It gives them a feeling that there are other people who may look like me who quite possibly could be having the same questions about school as I do.”
Of the students who participated in the mentoring program’s first year in 2005, all but a handful graduated, Jones said. Today, the non-white student retention rate is about 75 percent; several years ago it was about 90 percent. (The economy has been a factor.)
In 2005, the non-white population was about 4 percent. Today, it’s 15 percent. These are positive changes, Jones said.
Beyond the statistics, Jones said the program is helping people on a personal level.
“One student, his mom unexpectedly died, and his mentor was one of the first two people he contacted,” Jones said.
Curtis is now a tour guide in the admission office. And he’s excited to be working with the Diversity Center on the mentoring program and letting people know about how it benefited him.
“It wasn’t just me giving, but I was also receiving. He was putting in as much as I was,” Curtis said. “And that is not easy to do.”