When Justin Nguyen came from San Diego to start his freshman year at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, he struggled.

“I was like really homesick the first month of school. And I really needed like a push,” he said.

Nguyen found that push, and much more, in UH Mānoa’s First Year Program. Incoming freshmen who sign up are placed in learning communities, based on intended major, or if they are undecided. In their first semester, they take three general education courses along with a one-credit, weekly seminar led by a peer mentor. The mentor, an upperclassman, leads a group of about 15 students in weekly discussions covering college success and their own personal experiences.

“Having the mentors there are great,” said Nguyen. “It’s like having a different perspective, instead of having a professor talk about stuff. And they’ve been in your shoes before.”

Justin Nguyen

Justin Nguyen

“Giving them a group where they can study, where they can make friends, makes it is easier for them as they transition into college,”said Ashley Deinla, a UH Mānoa First Year Program Mentor.

Providing that first friend group and a sense of community is key to college success for freshmen, but it’s only one part of the program.

Added UH Mānoa Assistant Vice Chancellor Ron Cambra, “Making the student aware of all the resources that are here on campus—the tutoring, the support services, how to get in touch with your advisor. The one-credit course the students take have things in it like library literacy, financial literacy, I mean there is a bunch of topic areas.”

The students also learn study and relationship skills, are encouraged to become involved on campus and, when needed, are given resources to help select a major. Students who participate in the First Year Program are more likely to return after their freshman year, graduate and graduate on time.

Nguyen is a believer and is even thinking of paying it forward. “Everything is great now,” he said. “I was thinking about coming back as a mentor and giving back to the program.”