School News Network feature: Innovative mentoring program connects GRCC student-athletes with peers for guidance and support

Grand Rapids Community College freshman Vanessa Hewitt has played softball since she was 4.

After deciding to continue playing in college, GRCC arranged for her to meet with someone who was a part of the mentoring program “just to make sure I stayed on track,” Hewitt said.

She was even more excited about the program when she found out her mentor, Izabella Regner, also plays softball.

“It’s great, and Izzy has been so helpful,” Hewitt said. “Along with helping me keep on track, it also helps us build a good relationship off the field.”

Meeting with her mentor every Thursday meant she established a good routine early on, she said.

“(Mentoring) has helped me balance school and my sport, and I would say the most positive thing is how it reflects on my grades,” Hewitt said.

Community Created

The new athlete mentoring program grew from 2021 study table requirements for student athletes. Brianna Greenough, an Athletic Department support team member, matches new students with volunteer mentors and makes sure pairs get time scheduled and a space to meet if needed.

“I think it’s really important that this program connects students with resources,” Greenough said. “We now have 10 mentors who service all 117 freshman athletes.”

Greenough meets with incoming freshmen individually to discuss their hopes and concerns. She also looks back at their senior year grade point average to determine if the student needs to meet weekly or monthly for tutoring.

After week six of classes, freshman athletes’ progress reports are also reviewed.

“It’s been really interesting to learn and see how people benefit from the program,” Greenough said. “We’re seeing less of the usual cliques within teams and more students going to different sporting events and cheering each other on.”

The mentor roster includes at least one student from each sport offered at GRCC.

Being mentored by a peer or teammate is easier for some than working with an adult or professor, Greenough has observed.

“It’s really heartwarming to see the community that’s been created. If athletes have similar majors, they help each other through things,” she said.

 ‘They’ve got your back’

Some mentors returned from last year, while others responded to a post on the student employment website or were recommended by their coaches.

In his third year at GRCC, Blake Waibel is a left-handed pitcher on the baseball team and a mentor to 10 freshman athletes, on average.

“Last year I worked for the school and wanted to work again, so (the athletic department) thought I would be a good fit for mentoring,” Waibel said.

Having coached his younger brother’s baseball team, Waibel knew he enjoyed working with people. 

“I love (mentoring), and can see how much they benefit from it,” he said. “A lot of it is brand new to them and they’re overwhelmed going into school. It’s nice to have someone who’s been there and done that, and will hold them accountable to use their resources.” 

Waibel said he has learned that not every student is the same, and helping some students may require a more unique approach than others.

“My job is to figure out what they need and how to help,” he said. For example, “some people just need help mapping organizational skills.”

Waibel recognizes the benefits of getting good grades and reducing stress.

“If you’re doing well in school, you’re not worried too much about making grades or being eligible for your sport,” he said. “When you’re with your mentor, you know that person has your back and will help make sure you’re doing the right things.”

This story was reported by Alexis Stark of the School News Network.

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