Mentoring Transforms Freshmen

So you’re going away for college. You take your acceptance letter, school supplies and dorm key as you say goodbye. What happens next? For some freshmen, this experience starts with little to no direction of campus life.

That is, unless they are accepted into the Scholar’s Mentorship Program (SMP) at the State University of New York at New Paltz. This three-tier program transforms freshmen into “first-year protégés” by surrounding them with diversity, guidance, and leadership skills.

The program was the brainchild of several Minority Recruit Program (MPR) Scholarship Committee members, particularly Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, and Professor James Lee. Wade-Lewis, now deceased, was an associate professor and head of the Black Studies and Linguistics departments, and director of SMP until December 2009. Like the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and First-Year Initiative (FYI), SMP helps freshmen adjust to college life with extra bonuses.

Eligible protégés must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and have participated in community service or extracurricular activities during high school. After applying online or by mail, accepted students must enroll in a fall seminar class called “Key Issues in the Education of Underrepresented College Students” which promotes networking, stresses time management, and introduces the student life for leadership development.

Most protégés live in Shango Hall to stay connected with each other. Faculty and peer mentors are assigned based on the protégés’ majors or interests from their application. These mentors are picked by SUNY New Paltz professor Manisha Ford-Thomas with help from Cultural Affairs director Rita Celariste.

In November 2009, Wade-Lewis expressed pride in her scholars. “If their average falls below a 3.0, they can still be in the program because we want to encourage them to always maximize their abilities,” she said. “So it’s not just the first-year program; they can stay in the program their entire undergraduate career.”

“Networking is that new key term for the 21st century,” she continued. “And so we help them to tap quickly into the resources that are here at New Paltz and then they can start their work having used the footsteps of someone else, they don’t have to start from the beginning. And having that ability to start in somebody else’s footsteps makes it a little easier to transition.”

The three-tier structure begins with “Key Issues,” but protégés may choose to become campus-recognized peer mentors and student leaders thereafter. SMP has received numerous honors and was honored as “one of the outstanding student life programs of the State University of New York” by the University Faculty Senate of SUNY.

Before becoming the first program director, Lee worked as an Affirmative Action officer at SUNY New Paltz. After a few years of receiving many scholarship applications from talented, underrepresented students, he and Wade-Lewis created SMP in 1988 to garner all first-year students of color. The Peer Mentoring Program was later added with the help of Dr. Gweneth Lloyd, the associate director of the SUNY New Paltz Psychological Counseling Center.

Ford-Thomas is the current SMP coordinator and the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Center, an academic computer hub used by both SMP and EOP students at Shango Hall. Ford-Thomas also teaches Key Issues and expects first-year protégés to perform their best in academic and social situations.

For more information about the Scholar’s Mentorship Program, contact SMP Coordinator Manisha Ford-Thomas at 845-257-2762 or e-mail her at

Jennifer Von Willer

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