Long-distance lifeline: How NAU Jacks Online mentors improve more than just the grades of online students

Jacks Online screen shot

By Carly Banks
NAU Communications

Pamela Joyce never really felt like she had a home.

With both of her parents active in the Marine Corps, Joyce spent her childhood being moved across the country, from one base to another. She got to experience everything from the snow-filled winters of Havelock, North Carolina, to the warm summers of Honolulu, Hawaii, but never for more than a year or two and at the expense of long-term friends and a stable life.

When Joyce was 12, her father was relocated to Yuma. She didn’t expect it would be her family’s last military move, but it was there that her parents retired and decided to stay—a place she could finally call “home.”

Joyce attended Cibola High School, got a job working at a local optical shop, made friends and met a boy. She finally was living the life of a normal teenager.

After graduation, Joyce and her fiancé, Caleb Sanchez, moved to Flagstaff and enrolled in classes at NAU; she as a business administration major with a marketing emphasis, he as a criminology and criminal justice major. They gave it their best shot, but after waiting her whole life to find a home, Joyce realized she wasn’t ready to leave it.

“When Caleb and I made the decision to move back to Yuma, we knew that we would still need to work in order to pay our bills,” she said. “We decided to switch to an online degree so that we could have the flexibility to work full-time.”

Flexibility and convenience are just some of the perks of an online education, and more and more students are finding themselves opting for this style of learning. Not only is the cost of tuition often cheaper, but students have the ability to work or take care of their families at home while earning their degrees. However, of the one in four students that enroll in online classes, many struggle. Joyce was no different.

“While there are many advantages to online learning, there are some disadvantages as well,” said JJ Boggs, director of NAU’s transfer and commuter connection. “Online students often report feeling isolated, alone, disconnected, unprepared and unaware of the resources and opportunities available to them. Luckily, we’ve come up with a solution that helps our NAU students move past those challenges.”

QuoteJacks Online, which was started in fall 2017, is a peer mentor program designed to assist students with their transition to online learning and help them feel connected to the NAU community. Peer mentors, who are online students themselves, provide individualized support, encouragement, access to resources and accountability.

“Peer mentors reach out to new online students each semester,” Boggs said. “Based on the needs and interests of the students, they schedule one-on-one conversations with students as frequently as needed. The mentors text, email, phone and video chat support and offer assistance with resources, problem-solving, tech support, navigating BBLearn and LOUIE, motivation, midterm grade concerns, important dates and deadlines and connecting with advisers.”

Tammie Vaughn is one of six NAU mentors to pilot the program.

A Phoenix resident with a full-time job, heading north to attend NAU in person wasn’t an option for her, so she decided to pursue a degree online.

“I chose NAU because it offered an array of online degree programs,” she said. “I was able to pick something that works for me and my business.”

Vaughn is working toward a bachelor’s degree in applied science in administration and a certificate in parks and recreation management. The summer before her senior year, she was presented the opportunity to mentor online students like herself as they worked toward their degrees. As someone who loves helping people, she jumped at the chance.

“When I started my online classes, I felt a bit lonely—it’s hard to feel connected to a university when you aren’t on campus,” she said. “Initially, I had done a ton of research on what resources were available to me so I felt like I had become pretty efficient in navigating my online classes. Being a Jacks Online mentor allowed me to share everything I found and get more involved in school by helping others get involved.”

Of the 150 online students Vaughn offered a mentorship to, Joyce was one of 87 to accept.

jacks mentors
From left to right, mentors Janet, Liz, Melissa, Jessica, Kayla, Tammie and James.

“I had received an email from Tammie a week before I started online classes,” Joyce said. “She asked if I’d be interested in being mentored throughout the semester. I felt a little awkward video conferencing and talking on the phone with someone I didn’t know, but I decided to give it a try.”

Unbeknownst to Joyce at the time, her first online semester would be much harder than she originally thought. During that semester, her mother experienced a severe seizure that resulted in her losing consciousness, falling from the back of a loading truck and landing face-first on the concrete several feet below. She was left almost unrecognizable and had a concussion and permanent memory loss.

“The fall 2017 semester was extremely tough for me and my family,” Joyce said. “Without my mentor, I would not have gotten through my first online semester. All of my focus and attention was on my mom and her recovery, so I managed to fall very behind in my schoolwork. I feared I wasn’t going to pass one of my classes, but with Tammie’s encouragement and recommendations, I managed to end the semester with an A in that class.”

With the help of Vaughn, Joyce will continue her online education and plans to graduate next May, followed by her wedding and honeymoon to Scotland.

“This program provided me with guidance and support that I absolutely needed to be successful in college,” she said. “I cannot wait to see what the future has in store.”

At the beginning of this pilot year, Boggs set a goal to help 50 online students. Nine months later, more than 200 students have met with a mentor at least once. She and Vaughn have high hopes for the future of this program—in July, a new cohort of mentors will be inducted into the program, with plans to mentor even more students, hold more face-to-face events and continue to make earning a degree online more manageable for everyone.

“Earning a degree online is no walk in the park,” Vaughn said. “Most classes often require upwards of 21 hours of homework, but as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort, Jacks Online mentors will be here to help.”

For more information on the program, contact Anora Brooke Tillman, transfer and commuter connections program coordinator.

Participants in the program were asked to complete an end-of-semester survey about their experience. Below are their responses:

Jacks Online graphic

NAU Communications