Exploring first-year student engagement, and examining the connection between mentorship, transformation, and retention: A case study

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


University of New Brunswick


The attrition rate within Maritime post-secondary institutions is unsettling. More than a third of students are choosing to escape the pressures of a higher education, many within their first year. Focusing on a Maritime post-secondary program, case study research was used to explore what encourages students to stay and flourish in university. Beginning with the creation of a conceptual framework of engagement, comprising the three aspects of affective engagement, cognitive engagement, and behavioural engagement, I then reviewed current literature on the first-year experience, student transformation, student engagement, and mentorship. Noting that the literature affirmed the premise of my conceptual framework, I pursued data collection. Using a mixed methods approach, first-year students at a small private Maritime university were surveyed four times during the 2021-2022 academic year. Faculty and staff involved in the first-year experience were also interviewed. The surveys and interviews produced the following five key insights and themes: 1. Feeling welcome and knowing that you matter are not synonymous. 2. Affective and cognitive inputs do not automatically create behavioural outputs. 3. Supplemental academic resources are needed by most, if not all first-year students. 4. Connecting one’s degree to one’s calling is important. 5. Empowerment without influence affects student agency. Based on the findings, recommendations for a mentoring intervention were made in relation to the three areas of engagement described in the framework. To increase affective engagement, it is necessary to improve connection with the university community through communication, older peer participation, and small group opportunities to dialogue. To increase cognitive engagement, recall needs to be strengthened by applying reinforcement through consistency, assessment, and rewards. To increase behavioural engagement, positive action needs to be encouraged through structured activities, partnership with peers who are further along in their degree programs, and faculty and staff commitment. It was clear from the research that first-year students need to be mentored through programming focused on producing positive feelings and thoughts and structured to encourage positive action. The thoughtful integration of the three areas of engagement will lead to transformational learning and keep students engaged in their learning.