Panther Partners Program Helps First Generation Students Navigate Academic Life

When first-generation college student Garey Santano first arrived on the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) campus in Fall 2018, he was overwhelmed by the vast of amount information and how college was about to change his life.

“I didn’t know where to start,” said Santano, a Science for Health Professions major.

Because of this, Santano applied to Panther Partners, a program designed specifically for students at BMCC who are the first in their families to attend college. Developed by the BMCC Office of New Student Programs and the Office of Student Affairs, the program provides students with a mentor—“panther coach”— who offers personal support and encouragement, throughout their time at BMCC. Piloted in 2017, Panther Partners currently has 66 BMCC faculty and staff coaches serving 165 students.

Student participants are selected through an application process, then paired with BMCC faculty and staff whom are also first-generation college students. Panther Partners also has a number of mandatory workshops that cover a myriad of topics including: Academic Achievement through Academic Advisement, Knowing your Finances and Goal Setting and Asking for Help.

Santano says the program has helped him better understand how to seek out and take advantage of all the services available to students and how to interact with his professors.  He says his coach has also helped him learn how to better manage his schedule, and even the stress.

As many as 36 percent of community college students are the first in their families to go to college according to a 2018 survey of 11,000 campuses by the American Association of Community Colleges. And, there is a growing body of research suggesting that a combination of simple nudges and check-ins with a mentor helps first-generation students feel more confident about navigating the intimidating maze of college life.

For example, a 2011 study from Stanford University found that students who took part in mentoring and coaching services were 10 to 15 percent more likely to advance to another year of college.

“The most helpful aspect of the Panther Partners program is the mentorship students receive during their first semester from coaches —faculty and professional staff—who were the first in their family to attend college,” said Rahana Belle-Jerome, New and First Year Student Programs Coordinator, BMCC.

Santano’s mentor, Dr. Precious Sellers-Mulhern, a counselor at the BMCC Counseling Center, says students who are the first in their families to go to college, often feel self-conscious or insecure around other students who they perceive to know more or have a better sense of belonging because of their backgrounds.

“Spending time with my Panther Partners mentee gives him an opportunity to discuss certain ideas or concerns that he may not be able to discuss with his family members. Sharing my college experiences with him lets him know that he is not the first to have issues or concerns about belonging or having the ability to succeed, and more importantly, he is not alone in this journey,” said Sellers-Mulhern.

She said the program helps build bridges between new students and BMCC college life. It provides students with a connection that helps them feel more welcome in the college environment.

“As mentors share their experiences with students, it gives students different points of reference and offers many possibilities for exploration and success,” said Sellers-Mulhern.