Health Sciences Belong@FHS initiative heads to New Zealand

5 July 2013

Four University of Sydney undergraduates presented their findings of the Bachelor of Health Sciences' mentoring program at the International First Year in Higher Education conference in Wellington, New Zealand on 7-10 July.

The students, Remona Mekdessi, Brian Lam, Bret Curan, and Allison Grech led by Bachelor of Health Sciences (BHlthSci) first year lecturer Dr Melanie Nguyen applied for, and successfully won, two competitive grants worth $35,000 for research into widening participation. Dr Nguyen is both proud and excited for her students, "winning grants is an achievement for a fully fledged researcher - it's an even greater achievement to do it while you're an undergraduate student."

The two grants have allowed these members of the Bachelor of Health Sciences Student Mentoring Committee to pilot a peer-mentoring program and undertake research evaluating mentoring best-practice. The success of this pilot program led to the development of the Faculty-wide peer-mentoring program Belong@FHS, "we've always had a BHlthSci community but this increases our cohesiveness, draws on our strengths and helps make university less daunting" says Dr Nguyen.

Belong@FHS was established to help first year students studying Health Sciences at the University of Sydney better manage the adjustment to life and learning in higher education. This year has been the first time that the program was open to all first year students undertaking courses at the Faculty, whereas previously mentoring was only offered to those enrolled in the Bachelor of Health Sciences degree. The program includes social activities, online discussions and structured lunch sessions where first year students learn from the experiences of their senior peers.

Uniquely, Belong@FHS runs over the first semester and a half of a Health Sciences student's enrolment. This has been constructed in order for mentors to support mentees not only through the first weeks of university, but also with studying for exams and choosing majors.

Remona Mekdessi is currently in her third year of the Bachelor of Health Sciences and saw her mentoring role as a "personally rewarding experience." She was able to assist first year mentees as well as evaluate the overall program. Fellow mentor Brian Lam, who has recently graduated from the BHlthSci, says the program gave him hands-on experience outside of the classroom, "It has given us an amazing opportunity to gain leadership, research and project management skills."

As pointed out in the group's conference application, Health Sciences students at Sydney have the distinct experience of attending classes at two separate campuses - both Camperdown and Cumberland - leading to feelings of dispersion, "students may find it challenging to achieve a full sense of belonging, so having a program that supports first years really is quite necessary" says Remona. While aiming for the academic success of mentee participants, the peer mentoring program endeavours to foster a sense of belonging as its main focus.

At the First Year in Higher Education Conference in Wellington, the group discussed survey data and literature studied, as well as their own experience as mentors, to determine to what extent peer-mentoring programs eliminate the stress and challenges associated with transitioning from high school to university.

You can see the group's presentation here.