In 1994, after extensive research by assorted committees, the University Studies program was born. PSU had decided to gut the old general education program for a new system of learning.
Key to the relatively new University Studies program is the mentor program. Almost all freshmen and sophomores at PSU take their general education classes through University Studies, called Freshman and Sophomore Inquiry. These classes cover broad subjects, such as “Knowledge, Art and Power” and “Faith and Reason” (two classes being taught this quarter). The inquiries consist of two one-hour classes (held Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays), in addition to a two hour-long lab session. A professor teaches the classes and a mentor teaches the lab sessions.
Candyce Reynolds, associate professor and director of Mentor Programs, makes the case for the University Studies model in her article, “Using Undergraduate and Graduate Students to Build and Sustain Learning Communities.” “Several factors,” she stated, “were correlated with positive effects in General Education: student-student interaction, faculty-student interaction, discussing racial/ethnic issues with other students, hours devoted to studying, tutoring other students and an institutional emphasis on diversity.”
Reynolds said there is outside interest in this new system of education, noting, “We’re really a nationally recognized program.”
A mentor serves as an important link between the students and their professors. The mentor aids the professor in the class, and then teaches the lab sections. The applications for a position as mentor are available in December and due in January. One must be a junior or a senior to be a mentor for Freshman Inquiry, and a graduate student for the sophomores. Competition for the spots can be fierce, with applications greatly outnumbering open positions. Reynolds chooses the mentors for the following year through an interviewing process.
Those students selected to be mentors then go through extensive training to prepare for the responsibilities they will take on. Mentors are required to take one four-credit class in the spring, and undergo two weeks of intensive training before the school year begins.
A day in the life of a mentor generally includes both preparation and review. There are three lab sections for each class. Mentors teach three classes twice a week, as well as attending and assisting the class taught by the professor. Meetings between the professor and mentor plan the direction of the class. They also attend meetings with other mentors to share ideas. Mentors must be ready to work with six classes every week.
“It gives new students a place to find community at Portland State,” Reynolds said. At commuter schools such as PSU, students often fall into the “PCP syndrome”: parking lot, classroom, back to parking lot. This routine can lead to weak ties with students and faculty. Since the inquiries meet in small groups, friendships may be easily formed, with mentors serving as role models. As fellow students, mentors also have a view into each student’s life that is not usually available to professors.
Emily Kay Garrick, the vice president of the Associated Students of PSU, is heavily involved in the mentor program. Garrick said that though the topics can be broad, basic skills to learn are all included in inquiry classes.
The sessions involve critical thinking exercises and writing instruction as well as more technical skills. Garrick’s students are learning Power Point and Web page design.
Garrick’s description of the program is extremely positive. “It’s made me like the school much more; I’m so much more connected with the university,” she said. She feels that the experience has given her better leadership skills, as well as closer relationships with both students and faculty.