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In the NBC sitcom “Community,” a group of community-college students of various ages and backgrounds quickly bonds into a friendship circle in a matter of weeks, after initially coming together to study Spanish.
In the real world of community colleges, such bonds don’t always form so readily, particularly during a pandemic. Enter Nearpeer, a corporate partner of the American Association of Community Colleges, which has brought its social media app to several community college campuses and hopes to expand to others.
Dustin Manocha, founder and CEO of Nearpeer, says the inspiration arose from conversations with students while he was working for another ed-tech company, who told him that while they had plenty of social-media connections, they struggled to actually get to know their peers, even in smaller, more rural schools where class sizes were more intimate.
“They would say, ‘I didn’t talk to my classmates because I didn’t know them well,’” he says. “The theme of student isolation and loneliness was a recurring one. They didn’t feel a connection to the institution. I created NearPeer to change that.”
Nearpeer has been around for about four years and is used by students at about 25 colleges and universities, with approximately 100,000 signups to date, Manocha says. The additional importance of electronic connections during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to enhancements to make it easier for students to connect, ongoing improvements to the peer-matching algorithm, and additional student groups uniquely configured to each school, he says.
Nearpeer is tailored to college students and focuses on one-on-one connections, based on what they have in common, Manocha says.
“It is a personalization of the entire college experience, based on who you are, as a unique student,” he says. “If I am a veteran, and I like kayaking, and I’m a liberal studies major, and I’m a parent, and I live on the west side of the city – [the app tells you,] ‘Here are the other students you have the most in common with.’”
Nearpeer is particularly helpful for more introverted students, Manocha figures, as well as nontraditional students juggling work and family in addition to school.
“You don’t always have the serendipity of a residential experience where you are hanging out with people, and you get to know them because you happen to be playing a sport, or in some casual conversation,” he says. “Many of them have finally put the kids to bed, finished their work and have a few minutes to themselves at 10 o’clock at night. That’s their time to see, ‘Am I alone in this journey? Am I the only parent who can make this work?’”
Linking diverse students
The app includes groups for diverse populations such as students of color and LGBTQ plus as well as allies, helping them to build bonds, Manocha says.
“Our greatest impact, including among transfer students, tends to be with those who are struggling financially, students of color, first-generation and rural students,” he says. “We continue to deepen our work there because it’s so important.”
Students are invited to sign up for Nearpeer via email and text or during orientation. They create a profile of themselves that indicates their interests and background, such as major or field of study, where they’re from, whether they take in-person or online classes, whether they’re a transfer student, or a parent, or a veteran, Manocha says. The app, which most use on their mobile devices, then shows them who else has a similar profile.
Students then can ask to connect with others and message with them, as well as with campus staff.
“There are also group-chat opportunities,” he says. “There’s a group for students to ask financial aid questions. It makes it a very comfortable place for students to get to know one another, and to ask questions of staff.”
Eastern Maine Community College (EMCC) joined Nearpeer nearly three years ago to provide a way for new and entering students to connect earlier than they had been, share information about themselves in a safe space, and have a resource to get to know one another before they actually stepped onto campus, says EMCC President Lisa Larson.
“We know that once they are connected and comfortable at Eastern Maine Community College, having access to people, and resources, and friends they’re making — that sense of belonging is critical for them,” she says.
Among the student cohorts has been those in a program called Destination U that connects with unemployed and underemployed adults in the most rural parts of the area, to create opportunities for them educationally and then professionally, says Rachel Kahn, dean of workforce and professional solutions. About 30 students in that cohort use Nearpeer to share their lived experiences and build community “so they get to connect with each other, community partners, employers, and folks here at EMCC,” she says.
Larson appreciates the many questions asked of students and the plethora of resulting options to connect.
“They may want to focus on the fact that they are raising a family, and live in a certain community, and are engaged in certain things outside of school,” she says. “They also can connect through their hobbies, whether it’s watching certain movies, or knitting, or listening to music. … Employees who work closely with new and incoming students put their profiles on Nearpeer, and they can connect with them as well.”
Nearpeer proved especially valuable when the world went remote at the outset of the pandemic, which prompted some students who hadn’t used the app to sign up, Larson says.
“People did feel a sense of loss of connection to the school community, and maybe even in their own personal community,” she says. “Many of our students like that digital aspect of staying connected.”
Serving transfer students
Students planning to transfer to the University of Maine have been using the app to make connections at the next stop in their educational journey, and EMCC is building a similar digital bridge with Husson University in Bangor, Maine.
“It’s just 20 miles away from us, but it can seem a world away for students,” Larson says of U-Maine. “If we can engage them the semester before they decide to transfer, we can introduce them to that new world of learners and make sure those are smooth transitions.”
Second-year EMCC student Crystal Babcock, a mom who works full-time at a mental health center and is pursuing an associate degree in human services, says she’s participated in Nearpeer groups focused on nontraditional students, students with children, and those studying education services and health sciences, among others.
“I’ve been able to connect with people that I knew back in high school, who are also nontraditional students, going back to college,” she says. “I’m able to connect with people who could potentially turn out to be part of my professional network; they’re also doing human services. … I’m a first-generation college student, and I’m part of a group with other first-generation students.”
Babcock also appreciates a group geared toward commuters, as well as the ability to connect with instructors. And she’s forged friendships through Nearpeer, as well.
“It gives you a footing to decide whether or not this is someone you want to know on a more personal level,” she says. “Nearpeer gives you that platform to communicate and get to know your classmates better, and find out what commonalities you have. … Nearpeer addresses barriers, and concerns and interests.”
West Hills Community College District in California’s San Joaquin Valley is considering engagement with Nearpeer, although several students, especially those transferring to California State University-Fresno (a/k/a Fresno State), have connected with the app, says Kristin Clark, chancellor of West Hills.
First-generation students in small, rural areas often feel “impostor syndrome” that they aren’t worthy of higher education, which can make transferring to a university “very, very scary,” she says. “It’s a very large institution with a lot of complexity. They’re nervous about that. Having somebody they can connect with on the other side, makes it a little less scary for them.”
Those somebodies can include other students with similar interests so they can make friends and have “a softer landing, so to speak,” as well as administrators who can provide information as needed, Clark says.
“If you do an orientation, and give them three hours of information, 90% of that is lost,” she says. “Being able to give them little snippets of information, what I call ‘just in time’ information, in an informal chat setting, is great.”
If staff monitor the chat, they can “hop in and provide those answers in a forum that’s a little less intimidating than going into a financial aid office,” she adds.
Fresno State invites all admitted students to join Nearpeer. West Hills graduates can find one another over the app, make friends and potentially carpool since not all incoming students choose to move to Fresno.
“They have a lot of responsibilities at home,” Clark says. “To connect with others who might live in their community to carpool to Fresno State is a benefit to students.”
West Hills CCD will take a harder look at joining the app once the district fills president positions on two of its campuses, hopefully in January, Clark says.
“I want for it to be their initiative,” she says. “We’re going to get staffing vacancies filled before we roll out anything new.”
Data provided by Nearpeer shows the potential impact of the app. For example, of the approximately 300 students who transferred from West Hills College to Fresno State this fall, those who used Nearpeer have had a melt rate of 8.1% — while those who did not had a melt rate of 24.9%.
One student’s experience
One of those students, Malac Alqadhi, a business administration major at Fresno State, started using the app over the summer during orientation and appreciates the many choices it provides to connect. She found groups with information about being a transfer student, for business majors, and others based on “fun topics to random connect with students” like Netflix and life hacks.
As an Arab-American, she also looked for people with her background.
“Even though all of my classes are online, I’m still able to connect with other students who are majoring in business and talk to them about that,” she says. “I also really like the fact that it shows you the types of students that have interests together. It builds a connection right away.”
Alqadhi found the information for transfers and about financial aid to be extremely helpful.
“I definitely think I would have had a more difficult experience,” she says. “I wouldn’t have had all the answers immediately. With Nearpeer, there are students that ask the questions I would have asked, and that makes it much faster and simpler for everyone.”
Alqadhi also has developed friendships through the app with people who she’s now connected with on other social media and with whom she texts often.
“I have met different people and have friendships with people because of this app,” she says.