This post was written by Jerome Basma, a recipient of the CUNY School of Professional Studies ACE Scholarship.

Earlier this year I was really fortunate to be the recipient of an ACE Scholarship at the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS). The scholarship was set up to help students finish their degree as they get closer to graduation. Receiving this award was a real honor, and I feel very grateful to have been considered, let alone chosen.

As part of the award, ACE scholars are required to mentor two students who are just entering the school. I have never mentored other students before, and I was really intrigued as to how it would go. The idea behind the mentoring is to give some guidance to those who are returning to school or are transferring from other institutions, and to help them transition into the way things are done in the online learning environment. As mentors, we don’t take the place of advisors; we just impart some of our accumulated wisdom and provide encouragement. After all, there aren’t that many advisors or counselors who have direct experience of working in online teams or groups to complete class projects, or have direct experience of how taxing taking one too many classes can be for a student juggling a full-time job, along with family obligations that just cannot be ignored. Don’t get me wrong, advisors at CUNY SPS are extremely important, it’s just that we as mentors can reach new students as very few others can: as fellow students who have been in the exact same position that they now find themselves in.

The first step in this process was to have mentors and mentees meet face to face during a gathering organized at the school just for that purpose. The meeting was attended by the dean and the assistant deans at the school. Refreshments were provided, brief talks by the school’s representatives were listened to, and most importantly mentors and mentees got to know each other a little bit. My experience meeting my two mentees that evening was both interesting and fun. The three of us came from different backgrounds and occupations, but we all shared some very important things, like a desire to better ourselves through education, an intimate understanding of what hard work is, and some years having experienced what you might call “the real world.” That evening was spent getting to know each other better, what our experience was, where we’d left off in our education, and figuring out how we would keep connected throughout the semester. By the end of the evening we decided upon using email and then Google Hangouts for video teleconferencing. This second method would be good to keep us talking face to face every once in a while.

I’m glad to say that the Hangouts feature in Google works really well. It’s pretty much just like Skype, except that it’s a little easier, I think, and free. We’ve met a few times now on Hangouts, and we usually do that all three of us at the same time. I’ve left my mentees the option of meeting with me individually at any time, if they choose, but so far they’ve been content to be altogether. This has created a mini-community working through similar goals of successfully completing the semester. Another way this has helped is that online learning can often feel a little isolating, especially for new students. I always try to go to the CUNY SPS gatherings and meetings in midtown Manhattan for the sense of community and fellowship. However, many of the students who live in upstate New York or out in Long Island can’t make the time to come all the way in for the gatherings. Teleconferencing on Hangouts has turned out to be an easy and convenient solution.

During the first half of the semester much time was taken talking about CUNY SPS’s orientation. This is the process or training all new students undergo to prepare themselves to utilize the tools and methods of online learning. It’s pretty comprehensive at CUNY SPS, and assignments and projects are given to the newbies before their actual classes start. By the time you’ve gone through orientation, you and your PC are ready to do the work in the classes. I’d had orientation a couple of years ago, and so I wasn’t very much help to my mentees on that subject. What’s funny is that they helped each other more than I helped them by being able to discuss their experiences during our teleconferences.

After orientation, and at the very beginning of the classes, I started to fill out the shoes of a mentor by giving them tips on how to organize their time and work. Online learning requires a lot of initiative; you’ve really got to motivate yourself to check in to the class website (on Blackboard) and to participate at the right times. Unlike traditional classroom learning where you take notes during a lecture, and are given assignments, classes online require you to choose the time and the place wherein you will learn and satisfy class requirements. It can be daunting at times, and it is really easy to fall behind. With some practice and good habits, however, you can work up to a very good rhythm and get a lot done.

What follows is some of the most important advice I’ve given my mentees. Don’t overtax yourself with too many classes. At the end of the semester you want to have actually learned and retained something of the classes you took. Getting a passing grade is only part of the value of this whole enterprise: learning skills and techniques that you’ll be able to use in the workplace should not be sacrificed to this.

Another is about working in groups, which I mentioned earlier. The advice is this: if you find yourself involved in a group project where your co-participants have low motivation, do not hesitate to take the lead. Don’t let others drag you down, set the pace for your (and their) success.

Yet another is to communicate your personal challenges with the professors. Very often there are obligations we won’t be able to forgo, unexpected things will happen. In those instances, talk to or email your professors. Most will be understanding, and make some accommodations. For those who don’t, you’ll then be clear on their expectation. In my experience I’ve found that if you’re genuine and you work hard, the professors will work with you as much as they reasonably can.

At this point I should tell you that I lost one of my mentees. Due to important personal circumstances this person could not continue with the semester, and had to leave. It was disappointing, and at the same time understandable. In parting with my mentee, I made the point that when things improve, the School is still here and that as before it’s never too late to take it up again. With that said the semester progresses and I still have my other mentee who is doing quite nicely. Over the weekend, we’ll have one of our Hangout sessions where she will tell me how she is doing, and have the opportunity to ask questions or just share observations. I look forward to her completing her first semester at CUNY SPS, and encouraging her all the way to the finish line.

Jerome Basma is a recipient of the CUNY SPS ACE Scholarship, a scholarship program designed to support high-achieving undergraduate students Achieve College Education (ACE). He will graduate from the Business program at the end of this semester.