An inaugural student focus group offered high marks and encouragement to spread the word to more college students about an innovative online mentoring program from the Hispanic Educational Telecommunications System (HETS). HETS on April 22 hosted the focus group of 24 student leaders from five HETS-member colleges and universities in Puerto Rico to ask for advice on improving the reach and results of the Virtual Learning and Support Plaza. HETS developed the first bilingual, interactive e-mentoring and higher education services Internet portal at www.virtualplaza.org.
The students praised the online mentoring initiative for providing academic support and practical information on the world of work from trained volunteers in college and career fields representing a wide array of professions. Students are offered the free e-mentoring support in English and Spanish matching their academic and career interests through the anytime/anywhere reach of the 24-hour web site.
Students also gave high marks to the cultural “comfort zone” of a web site that offers them the support of a diverse family of “cyber-godparents” (cyber-padrinos/cyber-madrinas) as a resource for experiencing different cultures, perspectives, career experiences and languages. Domingo Benítez, a student at the University of the Sacred Heart in Puerto Rico, said the Virtual Plaza allows students to “form a real image of the working world” and focus on specific skills that will best benefit their career goals. While online education is a valuable tool that can expand access to knowledge far beyond the physical borders of a student’s home campus, the concept of online learning still is relatively new for many students, he added. “Online education can be a good learning method, but it needs to become more widely known,” Benítez said.
Mariela de Jesús, a major in chemical engineering at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, said students accustomed to interacting with traditional campus counselors must become more familiar with the concept of “virtual” mentors. “Although a virtual mentor is going to have a lot more time available, one always misses `seeing’ the person who is helping you,” she said.
The focus group cited the advantages of having access to virtual mentors that allow students to bypass traditional campus counseling office hours and appointment schedules. The students also praised the potential reach of the Virtual Plaza to any participating campus. Important qualities for e-mentors, according to the student focus group, are professionals willing to share their experiences with both career successes and obstacles. Cyber-godparents should be warm, objective, accessible and genuinely interested in meeting the college and career needs of their “cyber-godchild,” the students agreed.
The results of the student focus group meeting will contribute to efforts to enhance the reach of HETS, the first telecommunications consortium established to serve the higher education needs of Hispanic communities through bilingual distance education. The 18-member consortium of higher education institutions in California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, Puerto Rico and Texas – with an affiliated member in Colombia – has its headquarters at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico.
The Virtual Plaza developed by HETS is funded in part with a grant from the Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships (LAAP) program of the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. For more information, visit www.virtualplaza.org.