Freshman Ivan Garcia’s first few days on Illinois State’s campus were rough. “I was not happy when I first got here,” said Garcia, who left his family in Las Vegas to attend ISU.

Garcia noted that many fellow freshmen came from area high schools, and seemed happy to remain with high school friends. “It was pretty lonely,” he admitted, “but when I met with Miles, everything changed.”

Through the Mentoring and Academic Success Achievement Initiative (MASAI), Garcia was paired with senior Miles Spann. MASAI is a peer mentor program focused on the retention of first-generation, low-income and historically underrepresented first-year students. Mentors assist with the transition into the University life.

“We did the mandatory study hours, and Miles emphasized the importance of a strong work ethic,” said Garcia, “but he also told me to think of him as a resource to find out more about the campus and ways to get involved.” Garcia credits Spann with his work on student organizations such as The Black Student Union, Up Late at State and the Black Latino Male Summit.

MASAI has been on Illinois State’s campus in one form or another for nearly 20 years. Mentors do more than help with academic work and point out student organizations, said Angela Davenport, the director of Diversity Advocacy, and head of MASAI. They can play a key role in letting a student see Illinois State as home.

“I affectionately call them retention specialists,” said Davenport. “Those first six weeks are a volatile time – first tests, first papers, first time alone. It’s pivotal that students get through that time and make a connection on campus so that they return in the spring.” The program has done precisely that, with an average retention rate around 86 percent over the last six years.

Mentors receive basic counseling training in order to help students translate the language of a university, noted Davenport. “A MASAI mentor will not just say, ‘Here is the library. A map could do that,’” she said. “They take them into Milner and show them how to use the resources that can help them achieve.”

Dyrell Ashley poses in library

Freshman Dyrell Ashley is Illinois State’s first Gates Millennium Scholarship recipient in history.

For Spann, MASAI offered a chance to give back. “I knew I wanted to offer support to someone, the kind I did not have growing up,” said Spann, a political science major from Detroit. “Like Ivan, I came from out of town, with no connections, knowing no one. I was able to say to him, ‘Here is what I learned. Here are some tips I can pass on.’” Spann paused before adding, “You know Ivan got a 4.0 GPA his first semester. And when he looks at me and thanks me for helping him, that is a feeling you cannot duplicate in this world.”

Though many students are prepared academically for a university, Davenport added that first-generation or low-income students might not have exposure to a college culture. “We have our own language – that includes a lot of acronyms. We have our own time tables,” she said. “This is not about ability – the students have that. This is about navigating the world we call Illinois State.”

Dyrell Ashley needed little help academically. A freshman from Chicago, Ashley recently became the first-ever Gates Scholar to attend Illinois State, beating out nearly 50,000 other high school seniors for the all-inclusive scholarship. “My senior year was writing essays for the scholarship application – cramming it in between classes, activities and service,” said Ashley, who graduated valedictorian of his class and as president of his school’s National Honors Society chapter.

Determined to become a neurosurgeon, Ashley dove into classes at Illinois State, but it was his MASAI mentor who reminded him that college was about finding a balance. “We would meet regularly to study and talk. Heather [Hanney] reminded me that college was not just work, work, work,” he said. Discovering his interests, his mentor encouraged him to become involved in the Black Student Union and College Experience, which plans events and productions.

“The key is to move students from traditionally marginalized populations – low-income, people of color, first-generation – out of the margins,” said Davenport. “When you walk into a room, and are the only one, it puts you in a different mindset, and it might put other people in a mindset to rely on stereotypes. Even walking to class with a mentor can lessen some of the uncertainties students face.”

Many of Davenport’s mentors have been through the program, or are referred from faculty and staff. Garcia noted he is looking forward to becoming a mentor. “In psychology class, we learned about a model of participation, which – to me – meant someone shows you what you can be doing,” said Garcia. “Miles did that for me. He showed me I could do better than I thought I could. And now I want to do the same thing for other students as well.”

“In many ways, mentoring is the chance to pass on a legacy,” said Spann. “You give support to someone, and they will leave the world a better place, and hopefully teach others to do the same.”