A Match Made in Heaven

New e-mentoring program brings students together

For first-year PhD student Andrew Duly, the transition from life as an undergraduate at Ohio State to graduate school at Purdue was slightly different than the adjustment from high school to college.

"The main difference was getting used to the culture of the department," Duly says. "Specifically, finding who the right person is to talk to about graduate school and the issues in the department. I understood in undergraduate, but here it is very different."

Last fall, a new e-mentoring program was set up in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering to help Duly and the 68 other incoming graduate students adjust to life at Purdue.

The program uses an algorithm to pair a new graduate student with a seasoned graduate student mentor who is available to answer any questions that the mentee might have in a weekly lunch meeting. Pairs also join other participants in the program at a formal dinner on the first Thursday of each month. At these meetings, time is split between socializing and presentations by department faculty members on topics ranging from department news and events, to attending an academic conference.

Duly says that the e-mentoring program has helped him both increase his social network and knowledge of what is required in graduate school.

"It speeds up the process," he says. "As a first-year graduate student, there is a lot to get a handle on. The program forces students to engage with others in the department and to be involved from the start."

The program was coordinated by Mark Smith, head and Michael J. and Katherine R. Birck Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Cordelia Brown, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, after Smith secured a grant from GM and Boeing to fund the weekly lunches and monthly dinners.

The success of the pilot in spring 2008 encouraged the school to open the program to all new incoming students.

The expanded program required a more efficient pairing system, so PhD student Zhenhao Ge was asked to develop an algorithm that would accurately match incoming students with existing graduate students with similar interests. A total of 69 new students were matched with 43 graduate mentors.

Joey Ernst, a mentor in the program, says it has been a great success for ECE and has helped him socialize more than he normally would. "It's good to get out of the lab once in a while to get some good food and to eat those vegetables," he says.

For Neha Gupta, a second-year ECE master's student and mentor in the program, the program has exposed her to students from different countries and added to her graduate student experience.

"One of the things Dr. Smith and I wanted to do was to find a way for graduate students to ease their transition into graduate school and also give them a way to be engaged in ECE," Brown says. They are also hoping to improve retention of students. "We're looking to build interaction early on and to make the transition more proactive for students in these areas," she says.

-Kevin Smith