Panayiota Siskos ’23
A shortage of STEM workers in the US exists due to unmet demand for increasing numbers of STEM graduates. Such shortage is even more apparent in typically underrepresented groups, despite diversity in STEM companies typically having greater company earnings, productivity, and inclusive work culture. A major factor of this is difficulty in retaining students in STEM majors, who have higher attrition rates, with underrepresented groups having even higher rates. The first year of college is seen as critical during which attrition in STEM typically occurs, demonstrating the need to find the reason as to why. Data analysis from the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative showed more than a third of first years had mental illness symptoms that were severe enough to meet diagnosis criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with most disorders being depression and anxiety. This phase in life also brings exposure to new environments, relationships, and academic challenges which influence sense of belonging, and having a low sense of belonging predicts disengagement, poor academic performance, and dropping out of school. Some literature shows that key buffers against attrition may be availability and quality of mentors as well as mentoring relationships, with prior research showing that students with mentors have higher GPAs and have a less chance of dropping out. Prior work showed that exposure to role models led to heightened interest in STEM careers. The hypothesis was that first-year students engaging with a mentor would have higher academic self-efficacy as well as a heightened sense of belonging by the end of the second semester.
A longitudinal design was used three times during the academic year to examine the effect of having active and engaged mentors on the first-year student’s confidence in academic abilities and sense of belonging. First years were utilized due to STEM first-year curriculums being challenging and benefits may have been more impactful.
It was revealed that participants engaged with their mentor early in their first year had higher academic self-efficacy. It was also found that students who were engaged with their mentors during the early period of their first year had a heightened sense of belonging. This showed that students with early engagement with mentors during college had a higher academic self-efficacy as well as feelings of belonging in comparison to students that did not have a mentor. It was also decided that it was unlikely the results were a result of different initial levels of self-efficacy, feelings of belonging, high school performance, and reported levels of depression and anxiety. Future directions for this study may include examining if there were different effects between formal and informal mentors and if the experiences of transfer students differed from first years. This study was crucial as it found that engaging mentors during the initial transition into college was a strong buffer against STEM student attrition, a critical issue leading to STEM worker shortages.
 M. Apriceno , S. Levy, and B. London , Mentorship during college transition predicts academic self-efficacy and sense of belonging among STEM students. Journal of College Student Development 61, 643-648 (2020). doi: 10.1353/csd.2020.0061.