Raised by a single mom in Texas, Donte Curtis ’15 actually had a connection to Gustavus—his mom, Robin (German) Curtis, is a 1980 graduate. But when he arrived on campus in 2011 he was a non-white kid in a predominantly white school on the Minnesota prairie. No connections to speak of and at the start of his college career.
Historically, he was showing up at a good time. A few years earlier Virgil Jones joined the Gustavus staff as the coordinator of multicultural recruitment and assistant director of admission. Jones and his colleagues noticed a disparity between the College’s overall student retention rate of more than 90 percent and the 60 percent of racially underrepresented students who came back after their first year. Understanding that the College has made it a priority to recruit a diverse student body and the admission office invests significant resources into bringing the best first-year class to campus, they sought answers to bridge that gap.
“One of the things I found out was they needed mentors on campus,” Jones recalls. Along with two faculty members, Carolyn O’Grady and Sujay Rao, Jones launched the Mentoring for Student Success program, in which first-year minority students were paired with faculty and staff who served as mentors throughout that entire first year. These 20 relationships had some common features that included staying in touch at least once a month.
For Curtis, who could conservatively be described as outgoing, the monthly thing wasn’t going to work for him and his mentor, former Assistant Dean of Admission Adam Lugsch-Tehle ’07.
“There were weeks when I would go to his office every day,” Curtis says. “Sometimes I would just go in and say ‘How you doing? What’s going on?’ It was more a friendship thing than a mentor. I would argue that’s what a mentor is anyway. The program just kind of introduced us and we did our own thing.”
As Jones likes to say, at Gustavus they treat everybody differently so that everyone’s treated the same—with a personal touch. And that’s key in mentor situations, he says. Whether it’s helping roommates deal with cultural sensitivity, making sure Muslim students have a place to pray, or driving a student who has no transportation to Mankato to get supplies at Target, the goal is helping the student get the most out of their time at Gustavus.
“We wanted to counteract those retention issues,” Jones said. “What we knew is that if a student has success in their first year of college, they’ll come back.”
It’s working. Out of the 59 students who participated in the program’s first year, 53 graduated. Now ten years later, the racially underrepresented student rate at Gustavus has nearly tripled to 15 percent of the student body, up from 4 percent in 2004. Jones would like to see the mentoring program expand to the point where former mentees can take part in activities with the current ones.
Curtis is now in his sophomore year at Gustavus and no longer in the mentoring program. But as a result of that first-year experience he’s on a first-name basis with deans and department chairs. He also works as a tour guide in Admission—one way his mentor helped him financially.
“Not by giving me money, but by opening doors,” Curtis says.
More information about Mentoring for Student Success and other Diversity Center initiatives can be found at gustavus.edu/diversity.
This story was written by freelance writer Joe Tougas, who will write a series of stories related to Campaign Gustavus this year.
Media Contact: Vice President for Marketing and Communication Tim Kennedy