Mentorship for Freshman STEM Students Can Improve Mental Health and Academic Success

Ayesha Azeem ’23

Figure 1: Due to the low retention rate for college students who decide to major in STEM-related fields, there is an enormous shortage of STEM graduates in the workforce.

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have seen an influx of demand over the past few years, with not enough STEM graduates to meet society’s needs. This insufficiency is especially prominent in underrepresented groups in STEM, like women, African Americans, and Latinx. A key contributing factor to the shortage of STEM workers is the difficulty in retaining college students in STEM majors, with as many as 48% of students abandoning their STEM major before graduating. The first year of college is a difficult and stressful transition period, with more than one-third of freshmen students struggling with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. During this time, STEM students, especially underrepresented minorities, are vulnerable to feelings of not fitting in and poor academic self-efficacy, resulting in changed majors or attrition. Stony Brook University’s Dr. Sheri R. Levy and her team investigated whether the guidance of a mentor can impact students’ confidence in their academic success and sense of belonging at college, using first year STEM students in a longitudinal study over the course of an academic year. 

The sample collected was diverse in gender (including 122 women, 84 men, and 2 gender-queer students), as well as race and ethnicity. Students were recruited via e-mail and completed a survey that assessed their age, gender, high school GPA, and reported levels of depression and anxiety in August of the academic year. Students were then contacted in October to report whether they had a mentor and to assess their levels of academic achievement and sense of belonging in college. Lastly, they were recontacted in April to reassess academic self-efficacy and sense of belonging. The study found that participants who reported having engaged and active mentors early in college experienced higher levels of academic self-efficacy and sense of belonging by the end of their first year compared to freshmen without a mentor. The results were controlled for high school performance and reported levels of depression and anxiety. 

To fulfill the demand needed for STEM graduates in the workforce, the study concludes that strategies such as engaged mentors are needed to support STEM students during their transition to college, especially as these students will inevitably be the next generation stepping into leadership roles. Future studies should focus on differences in the impact of formal versus informal mentors, and whether transfer students’ experiences with the college transition differs from that of first year students.

Works Cited: 

  1. M. Apriceno, S.R. 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.
  2. Image retrieved from: https://p0.pxfuel.com/preview/169/80/934/people-college-student-students.jpg

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