Critical MASS mentors share experiences

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

In 2010, Dean of Students David Grady and his staff introduced Critical Mentoring And Support for Students (Critical MASS), a program that matches staff and faculty volunteers with first-year students on non-academic disciplinary warning or probation. The goals of Critical MASS are to change the student’s negative behavior, decrease additional Code of Student Life violations, and retain students to their second year of college. Critical MASS mentors offer students an additional connection on campus, encourage student accountability, and, when needed, refer students to academic or support services. Mentors typically meet with their student four times over the semester. Many relationships continue past the required meetings, extending the mentor-mentee relationship.

Two Critical MASS volunteers shared their experience with the program.

Lin Larson, director of University Creative Services, Office of University Relations

I’m at the age where I’m acutely aware of the distance between a typical undergraduate and me. I was a UI student in the late 1980s, but only lately have accepted that those days were truly 20 years ago.

So, when I met my first Critical MASS student, I wasn’t sure it would work. I wasn’t nervous, just a little skeptical. I didn’t know if we’d connect, or if anything we talked about could make a difference. (I figured my student probably had the same doubts, and then some.)

But I came prepared. Critical MASS mentors are trained in motivational interviewing techniques that emphasize open-ended questions, reflective listening, and other strategies aimed at encouraging students to consider how their individual choices impact their larger goals.

I knew a little about him already—year in school, major, hometown—but we spent most of our first meeting getting acquainted. We talked academic interests, activities, family, and eventually about the incident that landed him in the Critical MASS program.

Many students come through the program as a result of alcohol- or drug-related conduct eligible for discipline under the Code of Student Life. Critical MASS supports the University’s focus on safety, early intervention for students in non-academic trouble, and student success in general.

In the past, students who received a disciplinary warning or probation typically faded back into the campus scene, emerging only if cited for another offense. Critical MASS changes that, offering follow-up for at least a semester.

It also provides students with an ongoing reminder that actions have consequences. My student was contrite about the concern he’d caused his parents, the distraction from his education, and impact on his reputation. But he noted another reason for staying out of future trouble—the disciplinary process itself.

“It takes a lot of time and commitment,” he said. “I have to go to a lot of appointments, classes, and meetings with…”

He trailed off. “People like me?” I offered.

“Well, yeah. But you seem…okay.”

The benefits can be mutual. My department produces communication and marketing materials aimed at prospective and current students, and participating in Critical MASS has given me insight into their experience. Student life seems much more complex than it did 20 years ago, in some ways more regimented, certainly more fraught with potential pitfalls.

Like many of us, students sift through a constant barrage of information. That makes a clear, constant message especially important: “We genuinely want you to succeed.”

I can’t predict what will happen to my student once he completes the Critical MASS program. After all, the choices are his. But I hope he understands that people across the University—even people he barely knows—are pulling for him.

Cathy Solow, associate dean for student affairs, College of Dentistry

I’ve worked at the University for many years. Initially, I spent all of my time on the east side of the river, primarily in the Office of Admissions. I interacted almost exclusively with undergraduates, particularly students entering the University. Their enthusiasm and openness to new things and people were infectious. Opportunities seemed limitless and they were ready to take on the world!

In the latter half of my career with the University, I’ve worked almost exclusively in the health science arena with students in professional graduate programs—my contact with undergraduates became more and more tangential. When I heard about the request for Critical MASS mentors, I couldn’t resist the chance to reconnect with students at the start of their University experience.

Most of us have pretty full days doing what we do and have to think twice about taking on additional responsibilities. However, Critical MASS administrators made it easy to get involved. A training workshop, templates and campus resources, opportunities to get together informally and exchange ideas with other mentors, and continued support made participation more than manageable.

After meeting the student assigned as my mentee, any hesitation I had about the time commitment quickly dissipated. Engaging, forthright, and contrite, the student reminded me of all that is good about being young and in an environment where one can learn from mistakes. Our meetings soon became a highlight of the week in which we met and I was pleased to witness my mentee transition from a high school student to a Hawkeye. Sorting out academic issues with the help of his advisor, getting involved in cocurricular activities, responsibly engaging with the Iowa City community, making new friends, finding a job…all while remaining connected to his home base. He showed remarkable maturity.

Now that I’m in my second semester with Critical MASS and equally impressed with my new mentee and her progress, I’m sold on the program. How much good am I doing these students? It’s hard to say, but I think my mentees and I feel more connected to the greater University as a result of our interactions. Although our “official” relationship extends for only a semester, I will look forward to occasional updates about their lives and successes.

Learn more about Critical MASS on the Dean of Students web site ( For additional information, or to volunteer, contact Heather Ockenfels, 319-335-3557,