Learning new things and making lifelong friends. Donning school colors and cheering the home team to victory. In many ways, college can be one of the most exciting times in a person’s life. But this new experience can also present some challenges, especially during a student’s first semester or two.

Many freshmen experience common frustrations like getting lost on the first day of class, having a question but not knowing where to go for the answer, or just needing someone to talk with when times get tough. At Mississippi State, first-year students don’t have to face these and other challenges alone, thanks to the Freshman Year Navigators program.

Laura Dunn, interim director of the Center for Student Success, said Navigators is a valuable and enviable resource for new Bulldogs.

“The Freshman Year Navigators program is unique to our university, and a lot of schools across the SEC and nation are impressed by it,” said Dunn, who earned a bachelor’s in communication, a master’s in counselor education and is pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership from MSU.

Established in 2014, Freshman Year Navigators pairs upperclassmen with incoming freshmen to help new Bulldogs make the most of their time at Mississippi State and avoid the pitfalls that can stand between a student’s enrollment and eventual graduation. The program currently has 34 Navigators who each mentor a group of 100 freshmen.

The Navigators, chosen from a pool of applicants each spring, represent a variety of majors, nationalities, faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many also are involved on campus as Orientation Leaders, Roadrunners, Involvement Ambassadors and in other groups designed to welcome students to the Bulldog family. Dunn explained that each Navigator overcame challenges as a freshman and uses insight from those experiences to better assist new students who find themselves in similar situations.

“Our ideal candidate for Navigators is not a picture-perfect student,” she said. “We want students who have struggled because they can be problem-solvers and encourage other students to respond positively to a bad semester.”

All entering freshmen are automatically assigned a Navigator who can meet during set office hours at the Center for Student Success’s office in Allen Hall. Freshmen also can reach out to their Navigator via email, text or phone call for help with academic difficulties, finding resources, ways to get involved on campus or just honest advice on “how to college” that first year, Dunn said.

“Our office uses a pretty sophisticated system called the Student Success Portal that brings together information from across the university to help us pinpoint who needs help at any given time,” Dunn said. “We also appreciate when faculty, staff and advisers proactively reach out to students when they notice problems.”

Dunn explained that since the start of the Navigators program, MSU’s freshman retention rate has increased significantly. The university has seen a rise in retention from 79% to 85% for this most recent class. In that same time, the university has seen a major jump in its four-year graduation rate—from 30% to as high as 39%—and its six-year graduation rate—from 58% to 62% at the most recent counts.

“Mississippi State does a great job of making student success a top priority, and we’re proud that the Center for Student Success and the Navigators program are among the many groups on campus working to ensure our students have a better future,” Dunn said. “Our goal is to grow this program, so Navigators can help beyond their mentee’s first year.”

Bailey C. Lehmann, a Waterloo, Illinois, native, remembers moving more than six hours away from family to start her freshman year of college. She said it was a big adjustment, but her Freshman Year Navigator’s support made her feel right at home at Mississippi State. The support she received also inspired her to become a Navigator, so she could pay it forward.

“I didn’t know anyone when I came to MSU, but I would run into my Navigator on campus and knew I could always text her questions,” she said. “Knowing that I had her there to talk to and make sure I found my place here was really, really nice. I wanted to become a Navigator and help freshmen who may be far from home or just need extra help to better their college experience.”

Lehmann graduated this past spring with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and is now a graduate student in educational leadership. She said her favorite part of serving as a Navigator for two years was getting to know students through one-on-one meetings. During fall semesters, she focused on the “basics”—reminding students to go to class, get involved on campus and enroll in supplemental instruction for extra academic help. Throughout the spring semesters, she focused on at-risk students who had been placed on academic probation.

Lehmann said she enjoyed learning about what made her mentees “tick,” both academically and socially. This understanding helped her offer guidance for their specific needs and interests.

“I liked giving my students tips and tricks for succeeding in school and making them aware of events that were happening on campus,” she said. “There are so many clubs and organizations to be involved in, and you get out what you put in. Along with going to class, I reminded my students that it’s important to put themselves out there socially. They may try out for something and get rejected, but I wanted them to be more determined than that.”

Lehmann said being mentored by a Navigator made her better in that same role. As a Navigator, she grew in many ways because the experience made her more organized, detail-oriented and intentional with people, especially students who may be struggling with hidden challenges. She said she is grateful for the relationships she built with everyone in the program, which she calls her “big MSU family.”

“I met one of my best friends through Navigators, and we scheduled classes together. I also appreciate Stacy Dillard and Laura Dunn,” Lehmann said of the Center for Student Success’s coordinator and director. “They are both so knowledgeable, and as an MSU graduate, Laura knows the ins and outs of the university. Having them in my corner has been a real blessing.”

Because Navigators primarily use digital communication with their mentees, the program has continued to make a positive impact during the COVID-19 pandemic—a time when the mentors’ support was especially important and appreciated, Dunn said.

“Our Navigators were also experiencing the shift to online classes, so they could really relate to the problems students were having and offer great suggestions for getting through that transition,” she said. “They worked incredibly hard to reach out to every freshman to determine what type of obstacles they were facing and were able to point students to numerous campus programs and helpful resources.”

Dunn said while the future brings uncertainty about campus operations, one thing will not change—Navigators will always be ready to lend a Bulldog paw to students in need.

“Like everyone else on campus, we’ve planned ahead, so we can be better prepared to help,” she said. “We have made changes to how the Navigators operate to ensure they’re being socially responsible, so they can continue being positive role models to their freshmen.”

There’s no denying that hard work and determination are the key ingredients to success, but to Laura Dunn, mentorship is an equally necessary part of the equation.

While the first two give a person the experience and drive to reach their goals, mentorship can help them focus those efforts on the things that will reap the most benefit.

“I don’t believe any successful individual can look back without thinking of a few people who helped them along the way,” Dunn said. “It could be a mentor who helped with a job application and interview tips, or someone who lent an ear and offered advice about a major or career.

“Whatever guidance they offer, those helpful individuals can make a lasting impact on a student’s life,” she continued.

Mississippi State has many resources to help students navigate their academic and post-graduation options, but one of the most valuable assets to a student can be a relationship with an alumni mentor.

Bulldog graduates are in a unique position to help current students find their way in their chosen fields and make important connections to jump-start a career.

Alumni who are interested in becoming mentors can reach out to their former academic colleges and departments to volunteer or be connected with current students. There are also more formal mentorship opportunities offered through some campus units.

Bulldog Mentoring – Alumni who wish to offer career guidance for current students can contact the MSU Career Center at 662.325.3344 or career@career.msstate.edu to become part of its LinkedIn-based mentorship program.

Startup Mentoring – Offered through the Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach, this program connects student startups with business mentors who provide feedback, perspective, ideas and problem-solving skills. Find more information at www.ecenter.msstate.edu.

Holmes Cultural Diversity Center Alumni Mentorship – Designed to develop the professional skills of MSU students, this three-component program gives alumni the chance to share their experiences and expertise. To learn more or to volunteer, connect with the center on Facebook @msstatehcdc; Twitter @msstate_hcdc; or by calling 662.325.2033.

By Sasha Steinberg | Photo by Megan Bean