Cardinal Communities create relationships to empower first-time college goers

As new Cardinals flock to campus for the fall semester, LU Cardinal Communities aim to engage in meaningful relationships that empower first-time college goers to thrive at Lamar University and beyond.

According to Associate Director of STAR Services Erin Tabor, a Cardinal Community, or CC, is a group of new students who take one or more courses together during the fall semester. Each group attends a weekly one-hour seminar led by a peer and professional mentor. CC students develop a sense of community as they attend classes, study and participate in various activities and events with their mentor and fellow students, Tabor said.


“Through Cardinal Communities, students are able to make connections — with peers, professional staff/faculty, campus resources and academic departments — and learn about all the opportunities Lamar University has to offer, while being supported by a peer and professional mentor during their transition to college and becoming a part of the LU community,” she added.

Peer mentor Kalan Bonnette said he thinks the program is fantastic for new, incoming students and wishes he had known about Cardinal Communities when he was an incoming freshman.

“Watching a student becoming more sure of themselves and blossom into a much more calm and happy person never grows old,” Bonnette said. “It’s amazing how much stress you can take from someone by just telling them what you already know and then they are free to be more themselves and have a much better time at college.”

In order to access Cardinal Communities, Tabor said, students select their CC and enroll through their advisor. Once enrolled, the meet-up will show up on their schedule like another class, though it is not credit-bearing. CC groups meet weekly for the first eight weeks of the fall semester when support is most needed in the transition to college. Outside of weekly CC meetings, mentors communicate often with their group and check-in individually with students to continue building that rapport and connection.

As a peer mentor, Bonnette works with a professional mentor to create a program each week to reach the students.Cardinal Communities

“One of the unique things about the program is that we can tailor it every week to that particular group of students because the group sizes are so small,” he said. “Once a session is hosted, it’s my job to make sure things go according to plan to see what changes we should make to the next session so that everyone has a better experience.”

He also has one-on-one sessions with every mentee and is available to answer questions whenever students need.

For Aubrie Self, being a peer mentor is like being a helpful friend, she said, adding that she is responsible for meeting face-to-face with the students assigned to her Cardinal Community for their designated meet-up time, when she engages the students in various activities and discussions she thinks will benefit them through their major and through college in general.

Bonnette said he was inspired to become a peer mentor after experiencing his own college transition.

“My college transition was not the greatest and, while I was unaware of the Cardinal Community program, I simply want the incoming students to have it easier than I did,” he said. “College is difficult enough as is, there’s no need for every student to learn on their own what can be simply told from experience.”

Success looks different to everyone — from coordinators to mentors and mentees. For Bonnette, success is enabling that student to become a successful one.

“My goal is to equip a student for university life — manage time, create study habits, learn the nuances of dealing with financial aid and professors, etc. There are ways to make the system easier on yourself and I just want them to know,” he said. “But more than just being effective students, I want them to have the best time they can at college. It’s fun! But it’s not fun if you’re perpetually concerned about something, especially something I can answer with a quick conversation or even a text. I just want students to have the most wonderful college experience they can.”

For Tabor, success is a genuine connection and open communication that fosters a safe, inclusive environment and relationship, allowing students to explore and experience with confidence and the knowledge that someone is there for them.

“Each student is unique, so their experience of mentoring will be unique,” she said. “We want to be here for students in the ways they want and need. For some, that might be learning more about the major they’ve chosen and connecting them to faculty. For others, that might be supporting them and connecting them with resources as they live away from home for the first time. And yet for others, it may just be providing them the opportunity to meet the people who will become life-long friends or colleagues.”

For Self, success is a journey to a larger goal.

“My goal when working with a student is to see what they are trying to achieve for the semester and assist them in reaching their personal goal,” Self said. “I think success looks like progress. I make sure students understand that reaching a goal takes time and that progress is key.”

Self recalled a particular interaction with a mentee that stands out to her — a student that was struggling with feeling they were not smart enough for their major.

According to the peer mentor, the student came from a small high school and graduated salutatorian; however, when they came to Lamar University, this student struggled with the assignments and felt like everyone else in the classroom was smarter than them, Self said.

“I could tell that they were really beat up by this because they were accustomed to being the smartest one in the room and now, they are failing classes and they have never been in this situation,” she explained. “I assured them that college is a totally different ballgame and that classes are way different compared to high school; it is normal to struggle with the transition. I advised them to go to the tutoring center. They were apprehensive about it because they felt like they did not need it. Eventually, they scheduled a session and it helped them dramatically! Now, that student has a higher GPA than me and has joined the mentoring program through their major.”

Self added that peer mentors can inspire students in more ways than just academics.

“When I admit that I don’t know everything, I struggle in my classes, too, or I share a personal experience, they see that and it can make a bigger difference in their life without me even realizing it,” she said, highlighting an instance when Self shared that she struggles with mental health. “I had a student come to me weeks later saying that I inspired them to speak up about their depression and get help. I had no clue that my peers would look at me as a role model as much as they do.”

Self noted, “The opportunity to peer mentor has opened my eyes in many life-changing ways. My advice to anyone wanting to build connections, learn more about themselves and encourage others to bring out the best in themselves, join a peer mentor program! If I had not taken this position, I can guarantee I would not be as sure of myself as I am right now.”

With more than 1,000 students served by the CC program during fall 2021, Tabor said the successful program is on track to do the same this year.

“This (Cardinal Community) is becoming part of the culture of being a Cardinal and a common experience among all students, which only adds to the connection and sense of belonging students will gain in participating in this program,” she added.

Bonnette said that in his experience of being a peer mentor, he has learned that every student is wildly different and students need someone to relate to during this difficult transition, which is where a Cardinal Community comes in.

“Students need to relate to you and you need to relate to them,” he added. “If you can get on their level and let them know that while you know they are very capable and sometimes everyone needs a little help, I find the program works very well. Respect is a two-way street after all.”

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