Psychology Professor Sarah Schwartz is at the forefront of empowering first-generation college students to cultivate mentoring relationships, and her efforts have been bolstered through a research grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.

She is the principle investigator of a three-year, $582,150 grant that will fund an evaluation of Connected Scholars, a program designed to help first-generation and underrepresented college students. Schwartz developed Connected Scholars during a postdoctoral fellowship with the MacArthur Foundation, working with other scholars.

“We work with students to help them recruit mentors and gain social support to advance their academic and professional goals,” said Schwartz.

“This is a new way of teaching the importance of mentoring, compared to the old way of simply assigning a single mentor to a single student. We want students to reach out and become ‘mentor magnets’ to everyone around them – fellow students, faculty, administrators, staff, and coaches.”

The research will examine the Connected Scholars program implemented at UMass Boston.

McKenna ParnesSchwartz’s research assistant, McKenna Parnes, a second-year student in Suffolk’s clinical psychology doctoral program, will help develop student surveys, manage data collection, and write articles on research findings.

“It’s really important to understand everything that goes into designing a study and then implementing it with students,” said Parnes. “There’s no better feeling than to take what you’ve learned and create a final product that will hopefully be beneficial to the people you’re trying to support.”

Researcher as mentor

Parnes is grateful to have Schwartz as a mentor. “I applied to Suffolk specifically to work with her,” said Parnes, who aspires to teach psychology at the collegiate level. “She is teaching me to become a better researcher, writer, and eventually a mentor myself to other students. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for her. She is bright, kind, and has everyone’s best interest at heart.”

Isabella Pimentel Leon, Class of 2018, also will be involved in the research, helping to prepare assessments and other measurements during the evaluation process.

“You study research methods at some point of your academic career, but this will be the real deal in real-life settings,” she said.

Pimentel Leon, a psychology major, believes it’s essential for every student to have a mentor, particularly first-generation college students.

“Since nobody in their family has experienced what they are going through, they could feel misunderstood or overwhelmed,” she said. “Sometimes all they need is a little push and validation to get to the finish line and thrive.”

Data collection

Schwartz and her team, including co-principle investigators from UMass Boston and Boston University, are to finalize the plan for the evaluation portion of the research project early next year.

“That includes collecting data over a two-year period, looking at students before they start the program, at the end of the program, and at the end of their first year in college,” said Schwartz.

As many as 600 UMass Boston students will be recruited to participate in the study next September. Half of them will be randomly assigned to enroll in the one-credit Connected Scholars course.

Pilot showed promise

Schwartz conducted a pilot program in 2015, and students involved in the four-session version of the workshop were encouraged to recruit mentors – inside and outside of school.

In the end, the findings revealed that students involved in the program developed closer and stronger relationships with their instructors on campus than those who didn’t participate.

“The pilot study also suggested that first-generation college students who went through the program had more positive attitudes about asking for help and improved grades,” said Schwartz.

— Tony Ferullo