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'Beaver Hangouts,' an Oregon State University program, provide real-time conversation sessions

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Students in Neil Ford's pre-engineering class engage in a conversation with a Beaver Hangouts coach in January via video conference on Skype. During the session the students talked about resumes and interviewing tips when applying for jobs. For the second year at St. Helens High School, students in all grades can converse in real time with college students at Oregon State University about academic and social topics.

The program, called "Beaver Hangouts," has been operating since 2012 and began as a community outreach initiative to introduce underserved students across Oregon to the idea of college in a more personal way.

Every few weeks, one student could video call a classroom in Portland and use an hour of classroom time to chat about college, how to develop good study habits, and other related topics.

The program started with one college student who worked as a coaching mentor with three third-grade classes in Portland through the "I Have a Dream" Oregon nonprofit. Over the years, the OSU program expanded its scope to include 48 coaches who work with 28 schools, mentoring more than 480 students.

One of those schools is St. Helens High School. Chemistry and engineering teacher Neil Ford, an OSU alumni, learned about the program last school year and thought it would be a great resource for his pre-engineering students. In the 2015-16 school year, Ford said he worked with mentors who were involved in the university's engineering department.

"I was hoping to connect students interested here in engineering by getting them working with college engineering students," Ford said.

The lesson plans are structured so that each college coach can cover the same topics, even if they don't have previous mentoring or teaching experience. Beaver Hangouts' workshops can include time management, study habits, how to pay for college, resume building, as well as conversations about what college is really like.

Ford usually schedules five to six sessions with mentors during the school year for each of his two classes, and has had four sessions so far this year. During Beaver Hangouts sessions, high schoolers cluster together in the classroom, facing a small webcam set up at the front of the room. The coach for the day calls on the web-based video communication system Skype to start the hour-long class.

During their mentoring sessions, students get the chance to speak face to face with university students about everything from courses to social activities to what it's like to live away from home. Usually the session starts with a casual conversation about what campus life has been like since the last session, before the coaches lead the students in the lesson.

Students through the mentorship program are able to interact with others who come from a similar socioeconomic background and who have successfully enrolled at a full-time university. It can be inspiring, Jean Garcia-Chitwood explained.

Garcia-Chitwood is one of the precollege program coordinators for Beaver Hangouts. Holding a conversation with someone who is close in age is also key, Kali Doten, another program coordinator, added.

"The benefit would be building that connection with someone who is in college, who is speaking to you in a college building, and it gives you a more personal experience," Doten said. "It makes it more real to them than if it was one of their teachers talking to them about college."

In 2014 the program received a grant from AmeriCorps, the federally funded civil service organization that pairs volunteers with programs in need, to fund another position in the program, Garcia-Chitwood said. Several staff positions, including student coach mentor positions, are now covered. The goal now is to expand the program even further to offer transition classes for community college students who might transfer to a four-year program.

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