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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people interact with one another. This sentiment rings especially true for mentorship at Stellenbosch University (SU), a long-standing tradition of over 40 years. In order to gain insight into the experiences of SU mentors during the pandemic, Die Matie reached out to three mentors from various residences and private student organisations (PSOs).

Mentorship at SU has been able to aspire to new heights since the start of the BeWell mentorship programme in 2013. The initiative, which is headed by Joy Petersen of SU’s Centre for Student Communities, sees that between 4 000 and 5 000 newcomers at SU engage in sessions with more than 600 mentors each year. This year, the programme has had to take on a more remote approach that involves engaging in online activities between mentees and mentors, instead of the traditional face-to-face engagement. 

Providing a support role from a distance does, however, have its drawbacks. Dene van Schalkwyk is a second-year BA (Visual Communication Design) student and mentor at Nemesia Residence. What drove her to be a mentor was a desire to set people at ease. “I was so excited [about becoming a mentor]. I had these big ideas about how I would help my girls feel comfortable, how we would all be friends and sing Kumbaya,” explained Van Schalkwyk. 

She has found that the effect of social isolation, an accidental by-product of COVID-19 safety protocols, is evident among the newcomers. “It’s very rare that [the mentees] are all in res at once and it’s tough making bonds when it’s unsafe to hug or chat without masks, or share a meal,” explained Van Schalkwyk.

Some of the valuable lessons that her experience as a mentor has taught her have been about how to support people during times of distress. One such lesson that has stood out for Van Schalkwyk is that, “you can’t care for everyone the same way. You have to know who needs a hug, who needs space and who needs to be sent memes while the other one needs to vent. You need to try to do for people what they need, instead of what you think they need, or what you think that they would need.”

There is a general consensus among SU students that Welcoming and Orientation Week is one of the most memorable experiences of studying at Stellenbosch University. This is one of the reasons that Conrad de Beer, a second-year BEng (Civil Engineering) student and mentor at Capri PSO, availed himself to be a mentor for this year. “Capri PSO made the environment so welcoming and I wanted to be a part of recreating that for someone else,” said De Beer. 

He echoed Van Schalkwyk’s concern about the lack of social interaction because of COVID-19 restrictions on campus. Although he admitted that his mentor experience was not what he had hoped it would be, due to the pandemic, he is satisfied with his year as a mentor. “[The COVID-19 pandemic] made having mentor sessions and interactions with your mentees a lot more difficult,” said De Beer. “But I think, overall, what the House Committee [of Capri PSO] and the mentors did with the experience turned out quite well.” 

De Beer explained that his experience as a mentor has taught him to have a greater appreciation of what is happening in the present. “One moment you can be sitting with your mentees and having the best session ever, and then it’s all gone because of the pandemic or the lockdown, and sometimes things get really busy,” explained De Beer. “Sometimes we overlook the little things in the moment and we don’t appreciate them, and we should.”

One lesson that can be gleaned from living in the time of the pandemic, is the importance of the human connection and how big a role it plays in everyday-life. This has been the standout lesson for William Villet, a second-year BAcc student and mentor at Helderberg Residence, whose reasoning behind becoming a mentor was to live up to his personal mantra: to impact people in any small way that he can. 

During his mentoring journey, he has tried to live up to his mantra and has especially advised his own mentees of the importance of being disciplined and adaptable, especially when it comes to their studies. “Anything can happen, so you have to be prepared for all eventualities,” said Villet. 

While he has advised his mentees on how to approach their studies, he has a strong understanding that they need to focus on other aspects of their lives. “Yes, academics is always important, but at the end of the day, the person is more important,” explained Villet. 

As mentors provide supportive roles to their mentees, their mentees often turn to them for advice regarding issues they may be facing, such as feeling overwhelmed by trying to go about daily life while still trying to navigate the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with the pandemic. A piece of advice from Van Schalkwyk is: “Protect your peace as far as possible to stay okay while the world is ending!”

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