Maroon Mentors helping first-generation, low-income students navigate College life

Program participants say being open, honest, fostering sense of community important to them

Erica Kwok came to UChicago from a farming town in southern Illinois called Fairfield, with a population of less than 5,000. Moving to the city was overwhelming, and she remembers the “sea of intelligent, talented individuals” around her being intimidating at times. 

Like many first-generation, low-income students, Kwok prepared for UChicago life by taking part in the Center for College Student Success’ Chicago Academic Achievement Program, which provides early exposure to scholarly and social life at the College.  

The team there recommended signing up for the Maroon Mentors program, also run by CCSS, which connects first-year, low-income students with peer upperclassmen mentors. It didn’t take Kwok long to see the value in that advice. 

“I really appreciated the idea of one-on-one mentoring, especially from someone with a similar identity,” Kwok said. “The transition to college was quite nerve-wracking for me, and I wanted to be able to tackle my imposter syndrome with a mentor who knew how to navigate similar challenges.” 

Kwok was paired with Ashhad Querisi, AB’20, who is now attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Though Kwok had applied to UChicago with the intention of going to law school, she was unsure toward the end of her first year. Querisi reminded her there was still time to change her course.  

“I think it was the push I needed to be confident in myself and start to thrive in the STEM courses I knew I loved,” Kwok said. 

Now a fourth-year student studying neuroscience and choosing between medical schools to attend in the fall, Kwok credits the Maroon Mentors program with getting her on track in her early days as a college student.  

Maroon Mentors seek to support first-generation, low-income students with their transition to life at UChicago, introduce them to campus resources, assist them with their social adjustments and build a community among students. 

Mentees are matched with their mentors, second- through fourth-years in the College, often based on shared career goals, interests and identities, if that's what the mentee prefers. 

About 65% of mentees eventually become mentors, building mentor “families” who help each other navigate the College environment. Mentor families often gather during CCSS-sponsored programs on campus, group outings in Hyde Park or trips to other neighborhoods in the city. 

Dymphna Moghalu, a third-year in the College who has mentored for two years after being a first-year mentee, attributes this high retention rate to the nature of the program. She said her mentor, fourth-year student Ylise Minor, brought her “out of my shell” in a gradual, yet transformative way. 

“To me, shared experiences help foster a sense of community within mentor families,” said Moghalu. “When you have something in common with others, it gives you a sense of comfort, when you really need it, at the start of your college career. It also helps mentors tailor each cohort to be more individualized in terms of potential opportunities, internships or advice.” 

Kwok has been a Maroon Mentor since her first year in the College, including serving as the program’s Lead Mentor during the last two. She said that the key to being a great mentor is bringing compassion and humanism to understand how one’s background affects their daily lives.  

“Within the [first-generation, low-income] community, there's an added layer of complexity, given the structural barriers and/or economic and social conditions in place. We understand each other, and the resilience it has taken to overcome these barriers bridges people together in a way that is empowering,” Kwok said. “I hope that by showcasing what we are each capable of accomplishing, we get across the message that we add value to our workplaces, careers, education and so on, because of—not in spite of—our various identities.” 

One of Kwok’s favorite memories as a first-year student was visiting the Starbucks Reserve Roastery on Michigan Avenue with her mentor, a trip she has since made an annual tradition with her mentees. Moghalu took her mentees to Chinatown in the fall, and she also has visited Wicker Park and other areas of the city as part of the program. 

Both Kwok and Moghalu said that, beyond the activities their mentor families do together, what matters most is building bonds with their mentees and remaining open and honest to make them feel as comfortable as possible in their new academic and social environment. 

“I've been fortunate to have some lasting friendships with my former mentees, and I'm always so happy when they check back in with me,” Kwok said. “Being a mentor has taught me to foster relationships that create a sense of community and continue to thrive off of genuine connections long after our paths have crossed.” 

—This story originally appeared on the UChicago College website.