Fall 2020
Commons Room

Where You Belong

In an unusual school year, First Year Mentors are working hard to connect new students to all that Pitt can offer.
Illustrated by
Kimberly Cho

illustration of indigo, orange and purple patchwork quilt stitched with many needlesNeil Bradley looked down at Fifth Avenue from his room in Nordenberg Hall. The first-year environmental studies major felt lonely and overwhelmed by his new surroundings. He’d thought he would seamlessly make the leap to college, but now he realized, in his second semester, that he wasn’t as prepared as he thought to transition from his small-town Massachusetts home to Pitt’s busy urban campus.

He almost felt like he didn’t belong.

But then he came across a flyer in the residence hall’s lobby—it was about student mentors for first-year students. He had passed on an opportunity last semester to connect with mentors, but he wondered if it would have helped. So, he decided to attend one of the events the group had planned on campus. Soon, he was making friends through game nights at the William Pitt Union and connecting with upper-level students who advise on everything from academics to late-night fast-food haunts.

Two years later, the junior is a newly minted student director of the First Year Mentors (FYMs) at the Office of New Student Programs. “I had a tough transition to college,” Bradley admits, offering that a big part of it was his lack of involvement in the resources offered by Student Affairs. “I want to be able to make mentoring more accessible to hesitant students like myself.”

And he knows that this year, thanks to the pandemic, helping his peers find connection is going to be more important than ever.

That’s where Panther Connect comes in. The program is typically how FYMs show off life at Pitt, helping with introductions to student organizations and bringing together first-year students to create friendships.

Now, in the time of COVID-19, Student Affairs has pivoted and made sure students connected virtually before coming to campus. “We’re still committed to making the experience people-oriented,” says Breanne Donohue, associate director of new student programs. “Our goals are to make sure that students follow through on the enrollment process, and have ways to begin building relationships.”

All summer, Bradley worked with other mentors over Zoom to craft the year’s remote first-year programming and mentoring regimen. He also regularly logged into the Pitt Student Affairs Instagram account, where he answered waves of questions sent in by nervous incoming students.

And through Panther Connect Virtual, more than 1,250 students accessed programming created by the Office of New Student Programs to prepare those who were no longer able to physically visit campus in the summer. Led by the office’s 25 first-year mentors, students learn about campus life with a bevy of Zoom seminars such as “How to Ace Your Class Scheduling” and “How to Get Involved on Campus,” as well as virtual game nights.

Bradley has taken on the additional duties of being the social media director for FYMs. With social distancing and its impact on campus life, he believes social media have become more crucial than ever before.

And although this school year will be unlike any other, Bradley says the FYMs will continue to go above and beyond to make students feel like they are right where they belong.


This article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Pitt Magazine.