The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to university life. From virtual classes to remote research protocols, Chemical Engineering students and faculty have adapted in all kinds of ways. But perhaps one of the most difficult aspects to adapt has been the strong sense of community that is a big part of what makes CMU ChemE such a unique experience. But thanks to the commitment of both the faculty and the CMU student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), the social life of ChemE students has gotten a virtual upgrade.
The ChemE Pals program was conceived over the summer of 2020 as a way to create a sense of community among incoming Chemical Engineering majors. Led by AIChE Student Chapter seniors Jeremy Tinucci and Ishani Tripathy, the program pairs younger ChemE students with more senior student mentors in order to help build younger students’ social networks and increase student connections within the department.
“From the beginning, we were concerned about the students newly entering the department, who would face great difficult establishing a social network due to the large number that would be participating remotely,” says ChemE Professor Robert Tilton, one of the faculty who assisted in setting up the program. “In particular, the sophomore year is when students really start to build their social network within the major and create the desired sense of community.”
First introduced to students in the Fall semester through the Introduction to Chemical Engineering class, and the Sophomore and Junior Chemical Engineering Seminars, ChemE Pals was designed to be a voluntary mentorship program, similar to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Mentors are encouraged to help their “Pals” navigate all aspects of the rigorous academic experience of ChemE, from what classes to take, to what research opportunities to explore, to what future degree programs to pursue.
“I had an amazing experience in ChemE Pals,” says first-year student Tal Dassau. “The bi-weekly meetings with my mentor were very enriching and fun. Her advice about internships, class selection, and the pre-med process was incredibly helpful and aided in easing my worries about the university process. Beyond the academic aspect, it was fun to connect with another person in this crazy remote semester and have a few moments of relaxation with a friend.”
Not only are mentors helpful in acclimating younger students to academic life, but to social life as well. In addition to these one-on-one relationships, the program also encourages students to form “virtual families” where multiple “siblings” can arrange to meet virtually, or in a safe, socially distanced location.
In addition to gaining a mentor, I gained a first-year friend.Devina Jain, First-year student, Chemical Engineering
“My mentor also had another mentee,” says Devina Jain, a first-year student. “So in addition to gaining a mentor, I gained a first-year friend. During our meetings, I used the time to just unwind and get to know them both, and our meetings were very casual and fun.”
“We wanted to build a community within the Chemical Engineering department that valued a culture of collaboration,” say Tinucci and Tripathy, the program’s creators. “The pandemic gave us the added momentum needed to put this plan into motion, as many students would no longer have the same in-person college experience as we once did. We hoped that a program like this would allow students to connect with others who they wouldn’t have the chance to interact with during our hybrid class system. These connections allow for students to gain back some of the valuable social interactions which in the pandemic have been limited.”
Tinucci and Tripathy envision the program serving as a means for forming a tight knit community within the chemical engineering department, even after everyone has fully returned to on-campus instruction. Offering many diverse avenues of mentorship will be especially helpful to those students exploring various engineering paths, including multiple majors and different research opportunities. The ChemE Pals program will connect students to one another for years to come, providing lifelong connections within the educational, social, and professional realm, even after students have graduated.