Berkeley Connect is set to give undergrads a boost

While enjoying all that a major research university has to offer, many Berkeley undergraduates also crave more academic intimacy and community. As it turns out, hundreds of them will get to “eat their cake” and have it, too, when Berkeley Connect launches in 10 campus departments in early 2014.

Modeled on a pilot program developed in the English department, Berkeley Connect will bring some 1,480 undergrads into a semester-long conversation with advanced graduate students. Small-group discussions are essential elements of the program, as are one-on-one meetings, special events (such as informal talks by faculty and alumni  focused on careers) and field trips (showcasing campus resources, for instance). The program involves no tests, homework or grades.

Maura Nolan

Maura Nolan, director of Berkeley Connect, leads the mentoring program’s upcoming expansion to nine additional campus departments. (Cathy Cockrell photo)

Field tested

In English, more than 700 undergraduates — departmental majors as well as lower-division students with a strong interest in the field — have participated in the initiative’s pilot Peter and Megan Chernin Mentoring Program over the past three years.

Collectively, they’re giving it high marks. As reported last year by an independent evaluator, 98 percent of Chernin participants — required to complete a survey at the end of the semester — say they “would recommend it to a friend,” while 90 percent say the program has helped them not only in English, but as Berkeley students overall.

Associate Professor of English Maura Nolan, who led the Chernin Program and now directs Berkeley Connect, remembers her anxiety as the new mentorship initiative was first offered, in fall 2010.

“We had room for 240; I was nervous” about getting enough takers, recalls Nolan. “But we were full right away.” The opportunity for informal academic mentoring “tapped a need in our student population. We hadn’t realized how deep it went,” she says.

Mentoring all around

Grad-student mentors are not there to teach or give out grades, Nolan notes, but rather to facilitate a conversation concerning “the intellectual content” of the major and to help students learn how to navigate academically. If an undergraduate in the Chernin program has anxieties about writing, the grad-student mentor may offer tips and tricks for overcoming writer’s block, while speakers on the faculty panel “How I Write” may help students see that writing rarely comes easily for anyone. If an undergrad has misconceptions about office hours (as many do), the mentor might help the person figure out how to have a productive meeting with the professor.

Joining the conversation

Justin ParkFor Justin Park, who graduated last June, being an English major at Berkeley “is like being inside a conversation.” A one-time high school dropout now doing graduate work in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic studies at Cambridge University, Park says he had a difficult time academically when he first landed at Berkeley as a junior transfer.

The transition from community college was disorienting, he recalls. In English, terms like “close reading” and “indirect discourse” were “part of the air of Berkeley,” but it felt intimidating to ask too many questions. “I felt alone,” he says.

By the time he graduated, Park won a prestigious Gates Cambridge scholarship, for graduate study in England. He attributes his academic turnaround to his graduate-student mentor for the Chernin program, Matt Sergi, who advised him not to worry “about whether you got an A or A minus” but to ask himself, instead, “Are you participating in the conversation? Are you developing your own voice?”

“It shifted the way I approached my papers, this conversation of ideas,” recalls Park. “I credit my success to that shift in perception.”

Berkeley Connect’s grad-student mentors, in return, receive financial support to help them complete their dissertations, along with mentorship and professional-development support from faculty and experience that should serve them find teaching jobs. (The first five Chernin fellows who went on the academic job market were all questioned about the experience in their interviews, and all five got job offers, Nolan reports, adding, “It makes them more well-rounded professionals.”)

“As a grad student, I received intimate mentorship myself,” says former Chernin mentor Matt Sergi, who, after earning his Ph.D., got his first teaching job at Wellesley College and his second at the University of Toronto. “It made me a better instructor.”

Improving undergrad education

In each of the departments introducing Berkeley Connect in January — architecture, ethnic studies, history, math, music philosophy, physics, sociology and environmental science, policy and management — a faculty committee, led by a faculty director, is finalizing its Berkeley Connect syllabus.

The mentoring program already has many enthusiasts, including Chancellor Nick Dirks, who mentioned Berkeley Connect when discussing, in his inaugural speech, the “first pillar” of his administration’s initial agenda: undergraduate education. He and George Breslauer, executive vice chancellor and provost, have provided funds to support grad-student mentors in Berkeley Connect’s first 10 departments. And efforts are underway to create a $40 million endowment to fund 10 additional departments indefinitely.

“We’ve been talking to lots of alums,” Nolan says. “They’re all very excited about the program. I think there’s a zeitgeist out there about improving undergrad education.”