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Berkeley Connect helps undergraduates foster academic connections

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Senior Staff Writer

MAY 11, 2014

As big as UC Berkeley can feel to students first entering the school, campus leaders are working to build a mentoring program for undergraduates to interact more intimately with their academic interests.

Berkeley Connect, a new effort aiming to help undergraduates foster closer relationships with teachers and peers, launched across the campus this semester after a pilot program in the English department.

Undergraduates in the 10 participating departments are paired with graduate student mentors and are offered the opportunity to take advantage of the program’s three main components: small group discussions, individual advising and events and excursions.

“I really enjoy my major, and I wanted an opportunity to talk about the broader ideas of what we do as history majors,” said Eddie Mogck, a UC Berkeley junior. “I definitely gained connections to other people in my major and to faculty and Ph.D. students.”

Maura Nolan, campus associate professor of English and director of Berkeley Connect, said the program aims to complement the campus’s current advising programs in part by bringing in graduate students, an underutilized resource.

Graduate student mentors lead two groups of up to 20 undergraduates in discussion every other week, in addition to two scheduled one-on-one meetings with each student per semester. On weeks without a group meeting, there are typically special events such as informal lectures with professors or career panels. Semesterly field trips vary by department and are often to typically unexplored campus resources, such as the Bancroft Library or the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Misha Leong, a graduate student in the department of environmental science, policy, and management, said the program allowed her to develop a greater understanding for what all undergraduates do outside of the classroom.

“It’s a great way of getting to know students and what they’re interested in outside the course material,” Leong said. “You’re getting to work with undergrads but not having to evaluate them the same way you would as a GSI.”

The intimate setting and informal events encourage undergraduates to develop closer relationships to faculty. The program helps students relate to others with similar academic interests and goals, said Mary Ann Smart, faculty director of Berkeley Connect in the music department.

“It’s a way of making sense of a whole kaleidoscope of possibilities that can be pretty confusing,” Smart said.

Students, including those who are not declared majors, can sign up for the program by enrolling in a one-unit course. According to Smart, the music department’s program has a variety of students, including students participating in the program in two departments and students majoring in economics who also had an interest in music.

The precursor to Berkeley Connect began in 2010 as the Chernin Mentoring Program in the English department, with the support of media mogul Peter Chernin.

Chernin, a UC Berkeley English department alumnus who loved his experience on campus in the 1970s, decided to fund the program after his son felt lost at UC Berkeley and transferred to the University of Southern California.

“Peter is a really remarkable man. His reaction wasn’t, ‘Well I’m unhappy with Berkeley; I should give my money to USC,’ ” Nolan said. “His reaction was, ‘How can I make the undergraduate experience at Berkeley better?’ ”
Still, some are unsure if the program would be a good fit in every department on campus.

Panayiotis Papadopoulos, campus mechanical engineering professor and vice chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, said the students in the mechanical engineering department already have access to multiple advising services.

“All of our students are assigned a faculty adviser from their freshman year to graduation,” Papadopoulos said in an email. “Additionally, they get advising from professional staff employed by the College of Engineering. Between the two groups of advisers, I believe that our students are well taken care of.”

While 1,100 undergraduates participated in the program this spring, Nolan and others involved hope to expand Berkeley Connect in the future. The program has launched an effort to raise $40 million to fund an endowment that would allow the program to expand to an additional 10 departments.

Michele Rabkin, Berkeley Connect’s associate director, said she expects the program to maintain its current size next semester.

Although many universities, including the University of California, are developing online education programs, Berkeley Connect works against that trend to build face-to-face interactions, Rabkin said.

“It’s a brand new program and we’re beating the bushes and blaring the trumpets,” she said. “We were a little nervous when registration opened, but I think it will only go up.”


Mitchell Handler covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mitchellhandler.

MAY 12, 2014