Tackling Challenges One Coffee at a Time

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

Tackling Challenges One Coffee at a Time


Korena Di Roma Howley, Contributing Editor

When Calvin University reopened following COVID-19 shutdowns, student and SPS president Willem Hoogendam realized that some undergraduates—particularly first-year international students—had missed out on a key element of campus life: getting to know other students. This sparked his idea to start a mentorship program that would pair first-year physics and astronomy majors with upper-level students for meaningful one-on-one coffee chats. Hoogendam also wanted to encourage camaraderie by subsidizing the cost of department quarter-zip sweaters for interested students.

In response to his proposal for the program, the Calvin University SPS chapter received a 2021 Future Faces of Physics Award of $500 to cover coffee vouchers and department attire. The awards are made annually to SPS chapters whose proposed projects aim to promote physics and astronomy across cultures and support students from groups historically underrepresented in the field.

Among the goals for the chapter’s mentorship program was providing the chance for students of all backgrounds to thrive at the university, and in particular, to support those students who were transitioning to campus life while facing the additional challenges of cultural transition.

Hoogendam, who oversaw the program, explained that mentors and mentees were paired based on interests. For instance, new astronomy majors met with third- or fourth-year astronomy majors, and women were paired with women. The one-on-one coffee meetings promoted in-person gatherings that followed the university’s COVID guidelines, which prohibited large in-person meetings. Coffee vouchers provided students with additional incentives for meeting up.

“We wanted to find a way to connect with each other despite COVID,” Hoogendam says. The coffee meetings, he says, stimulated conversation and helped students build relationships with each other when they might otherwise have faced isolation. These relationships also gave new students someone to turn to with questions and concerns. “It’s easier to ask a friend for help than it is to ask a stranger,” Hoogendam says.

According to Hoogendam, about 85 percent of students in the department participated in the program. They reported stronger relationships within the department and that they enjoyed the chance to meet with other physics majors face-to-face, an opportunity normally taken for granted.

Most importantly, first-year students and students from underrepresented groups were welcomed into the department. This helped them overcome some of the obstacles and barriers that might have prevented them from successfully pursuing physics and astronomy. In addition, the women appreciated having strong female role models to turn to for advice, inspiration, and support.

Hoogendam says the coffee meetups caught on and have continued, with students largely arranging them on their own now. And those who were first- and second-year mentees when the program began now find themselves in a mentoring role. “It’s kind of gone full circle,” he says.

There have also been secondary benefits. One of the coffee chats led to the creation of a Discord server, which now includes both students and alumni. And the department quarter zips that have helped to unify physics and astronomy majors on campus will serve the same purpose at meetings and conferences.

Hoogendam says one of the program’s biggest challenges was communication between students. When it comes to connecting, he says, it’s important to take initiative. “People are definitely willing to connect and willing to be with each other, but sometimes there’s confusion about where to begin, so if you provide that initial nudge of, ‘Maybe we should begin here,’ people will jump on that.” //

Students meet for coffee as part of a mentorship program made possible by a Future Faces of Physics Award. Photo courtesy of the Calvin University SPS chapter.

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