HUNTINGTON - As a first-year student at Marshall University two years ago, Katerina Coon stayed in her room for the majority of the first few weeks of school.

"I almost went home," she said. "I was that person who made friends with her (resident adviser)."

Now a junior accounting major, Coon is helping ensure no one ever feels alone like she did by being a peer mentor in the new Friends at Marshall, or FAM, program.

Based on a program at President Jerome Gilbert's alma mater Mississippi State University, the FAM program consists of 19 peer mentors who are each assigned about 90 freshmen.

Each freshman has an assigned peer. The upperclassmen have "office hours" each week to allow them time to meet with their mentees face to face.

Coon had office hours Monday at Dunkin, and while it was not well attended because it was a holiday, she had meetings set up for later in the week. She's also had mentees add her on social media.

"One girl wants help finding a student organization to join," Coon said. "I am going to show her the list of all the organizations available and help her find the best fit."

Brennan Amaral, a junior psychology major, said he also has one-on-one meetings set up. He said he's finding he gets a better response from his mentees when he sends them personalized messages.

Amaral said when he was a freshman, he wasn't shy about getting involved, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't have benefited from a mentor.

"From what I observed, people go home after a year because they didn't make connections," Amaral said. "... I sought out organizations, but I overdid it. I needed help with time management. I could have used someone to say, 'Are you sure you have time for all that?' Like a mentor would."

Allison Grassie, assistant director of the Office of Student Success at Marshall, said those types of personal stories are what they want the peer mentors to share with their mentees.

"It's so important to make them feel normal," she said.

Last week, the FAM program kicked off with an event on the Memorial Student Center Plaza, and each student received a pin of two buffalo running together.

"Every person on this campus is here for each and every student," said Kateryna Schray, interim director of the Office of Student Success. "We want to get that message out to every freshman, and we do it in part by giving them a FAM pin, which symbolizes the mentoring relationship, the idea of one member of the herd looking out for another."

Gilbert said the idea for the FAM program came when he was provost at Mississippi State and the university, like Marshall currently, was looking for ways to boost retention rates.

At an accrediting body meeting, they heard about a program at King University in Tennessee that paired incoming students with an upperclassman to help them transition from high school life to college.

"They even took them on a trip to D.C. the first week of class so it was a real bonding experience," Gilbert said. "It struck me as a great idea to create a sense of belonging. Research shows one reason students drop out is they don't have a strong sense of belonging to a university. That program showed me that was a great model to implement."

So Gilbert worked to establish a similar program at Mississippi State, though it was a little different because it is a bigger university. When he left and came to Marshall, he knew it was something he wanted to start here as well.

Marshall's retention rate, which is the number of freshmen who return for sophomore year, is about 73%, which Gilbert said is not awful but he wants it to be better.

Gilbert said when looking at growing overall enrollment, the best way to do that is increase the retention, persistent and graduation rates.

He said based on his calculations, if the retention rate rose to 80% and the graduation rate increased from 47% to 60%, enrollment would increase by 1,000.

"I tell the freshman class at orientation, our goal is to have every student graduate from Marshall," he said. "It's my goal. I want every student who can graduate to graduate. I think upward of 90% can. Forty-nine percent graduate. I think we can double that. I truly believe that."

Gilbert said he hopes to expand the FAM program to include sophomores.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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