At the end of his freshman year, Jefferson Carson had some tough decisions to make if he wanted to remain a student. He’d come to St. Cloud State as an athlete but was later cut from his team. Without his role as an athlete, Carson felt disconnected from campus life. But all that was about to change.
“It was just about sports that first year,” Carson said. “I ended the year with a 1.1 grade point average. But I chose to stay, and I made the decision I had to do it right,” Carson said. That commitment led him to HuskiesAdvance, a part of SCSU’s individualized student success focus that he credits with revamping his educational path and connecting him with his mentor, Communication Studies Professor Matt Vorell.
Now, after two years of applying himself to his goals with the support of HuskiesAdvance, he has a 2.7 grade point average and is on his way to degrees in Communication Studies and Real Estate.
“Jefferson has ability, grit, and determination,” Vorell said. “He’s really an amazing young man.”
HuskiesAdvance is an initiative that in two years has involved 85 students from 39 majors connecting with 12 faculty and 13 staff mentors. “We have students and mentors across every discipline,” said Dr. Peggy Sarnicki, director of the program.
Nationwide nearly a quarter of all freshmen entering a four-year college will not return for a second year, and often students need more guidance in the very new environment of campus life to feel comfortable and confident returning. HuskiesAdvance is turning that around for many SCSU students.
Sarnicki explained how the program, which grew out of the It’s Time initiative for reimagining how St. Cloud State operates, works to support SCSU students in new ways: “Students work with a faculty or staff mentor to create a personalized plan to align their goals and interests with courses and other experiences,” Sarnicki said.
“Through HuskiesAdvance, students are able to build their professional network, create a professional portfolio, and earn a digital credential,” she added. “By exploring concepts in the classroom, engaging in projects and activities, and reflecting on how theory meets practice and life, students are able to show the world what they can do.”
“HuskiesAdvance is built on the best of what St. Cloud State University already offers: outstanding courses, an array of co-curricular experiences, student-centered faculty and staff, and a commitment to helping students receive individualized student support towards their personal and professional goals,”
Vorell’s mentees, like Carson, are part of the Leadership track. Since he teaches classes in teams and innovation, leadership and contemporary communications, “It made it a no-brainer to me to contribute in this way.” He likens the experience in part to that of an apprenticeship, where trust, credibility, and transparency are shared along with ideas and points of view as apprentices/mentees develop knowledge and move toward readiness to succeed on their own.
“I remember the first time Jefferson shared his perspective on life as a young man of color,” said Vorell, who was the first faculty member to sign up to mentor students who entered the HuskiesAdvance program in 2020. “He told me he had felt becoming an athlete or hip hop artist or joining a gang were his choices.” It was the beginning of many conversations that have led to good discussions, cultural understanding, and trust between the two.
Mentors Enhance Learning
“Day one he was there for me,” Carson said. “He teaches me things my mom and dad couldn’t teach me. My parents are amazing – my dad’s an accountant – but some things they don’t know. As I go on in my education, I see the onion peel and peel.”
“Dr. Vorell was a fantastic mentor,” said Jharef Hazir Tecsihua Tamariz, who was a mentee in the first year HuskiesAdvance was offered. After graduating in May 2022 with a bachelor of science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Biotechnology, Tamariz went on to be a research associate at Bio-Techne at the company’s Minneapolis location.
“He was focused on listening to my ideas, asking thought-provoking questions, and reflecting on my answers,” Tamariz said of his relationship with Vorell. “His casual yet motivational and supportive style helped me gain a richer understanding of myself, which allowed me to articulate the value of my leadership experiences and skills more easily throughout my job search process after graduation.
“I was interested in the leadership track because I wanted to grow as a leader for the organizations I was involved in, so I sent HuskiesAdvance an email and scheduled an appointment,” he said. “It went amazing! The activities we chose to complete the program requirements, including a management class, and informational interview with the VP of R&D at a biotechnology company, and a book on management in the sciences, equipped me with both theoretical and experiential knowledge that helped me further the success of student organizations on campus. It also currently allows me to better understand and contribute to the group dynamics of my team,” Tamirez said. “While my current role is not leadership focused, my participation in the HuskiesAdvance program has left a mark of understanding and empowerment that continues to fuel my growth as a leader.”
Student Kat Hinkley is another of Vorell’s mentees. “In a year, I’ve already completed two of my experiences, and I already have the other two lined up for fall and spring semester,” Hinkley said. “For my prior experience I used the Mural Project from Anoka Ramsey Community College. This summer I attended a leadership class by LeadMN for my “outside the University” experience. Next semester I will be taking my first ED class (that I would have already been taking for my Art Ed major), Teaching in Middle School and High School (ED 300), and this will count towards the program (with a double major course load, it’s great that I don’t need to take an extra class for HuskiesAdvance). My last experience will be my Future Educators Club presidency.
“I love having Dr. Vorell as a mentor,” Hinkley said. “He’s like a mix between a friend and parent. I didn’t know him when I signed up, and I didn’t understand how valuable a mentor was. Having social anxiety, I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved so far. I’m becoming a better leader in school, work, and everyday life. Leadership is so flexible that the skills you learn from it can be used in so many situations and careers. I know, in my future of becoming an art teacher, these skills will help me in the classroom.”
Many other students have benefited from mentoring relationships in the field of nursing, where Dr. Roxanne Wilson has embedded HuskiesAdvance into aspects of education in nursing professions. Mentors in the nursing program have connected with specialty mentors in areas such as gerontology, and students have led special projects on such critical current issues as immigration.
Professor Dr. Mitch Bender in Environmental Studies got involved in HuskiesAdvance in fall of 2021. He points out that most professors at St. Cloud State have done mentoring on some level, “But this is another way, a formal, organized form of mentoring that is very rewarding,”
Through HuskiesAdvance Bender has mentored eight students involved in his classes who have chosen the Environmental Sustainability track. “I try to leave the door to my office open, and sometimes they pop in as they’re walking by,” he said. “A lot of discussions revolve around career paths. And some just want to shoot the breeze, and that’s okay.”
Some students want more involvement than others who may have other courses, lab assistantships, internships, or jobs and family that take up much of their time, Bender said. “The beauty of the program is that it’s not prescriptive.”
Being involved in HuskiesAdvance gives students a better sense of belonging,” Bender said. “I can’t remember any mentees dropping out. That connection you get helps build a strong foundation.”
“This is a very new environment for them.” Sarnicki said of students entering campus life. “We encourage them to look at the entire student experience – academics and activities. HuskiesAdvance is the university’s way to help identify and support students where they are to where they want to be. It sounds corny but I think we’re actually doing that – living into that promise.”