Being an IDEA student mentor means returning to the Bryant campus more than a week before classes start to train and help organize the program. It means long hours helping first-year students get the most out of a three-day bootcamp devoted to design thinking — a process for creative problem-solving used by the largest and most successful companies in the world. And it means taking on a lot of responsibility, helping to execute one of Bryant’s signature programs.
But there are moments, notes Ava Genova ’24, that make those challenges worthwhile. Her favorite part, she says, is witnessing the transformation of students throughout the Innovation and Design Experience for All (IDEA) program, now in its 12th year. “Some of them don’t even realize how much they’re learning in the moment — the critical thinking skills, the presentation skills, the confidence they gain,” she recalls. “So many of them come in thinking, ‘Why am I here?’ but by the end, they realize ‘Wow, this is such an amazing process that I went through.’"
When the program culminates with the Innovation Exhibition — where students present the results of their brainstorming, empathizing, iterating, and hard work — it’s powerful to see the range of diverse, creative, and unique solutions developed over the course of 72 intensive hours, Genova says.
“You feel really proud for all of them,” she admits, and that feeling is one of the reasons she’s returned for this year’s IDEA program, held January 22 to 24 on the Bryant campus. “I loved it so much the first time I had to come back again this year.”
Allison G. Butler, professor of Psychology and director of Bryant’s IDEA program, says the student mentors are at the forefront of program delivery, alongside faculty and staff mentors. “They’re an invaluable part of IDEA because they have gone through it themselves and bring that firsthand experience — and perspective — back with them.”
In addition to an in-depth instruction in design thinking, the student mentors – all volunteers, Butler notes -- hone their leadership skills, their adaptability, their empathy, their communication methods, and their scenario-planning abilities. They also bond as a team through group dinners, ice breaker activities, and simply by working together.
“For many of our student mentors, this is a transformational experience because of the sheer amount of responsibility they're given — and they take that responsibility very seriously,” says Butler. “It’s an opportunity for them to make a difference for the next generation of students and to leave a little bit of their own legacy."
The IDEA program brings together students, faculty, and staff from across campus in support of the program — one of its chief strengths, says Lucy Burke ’25, co-mentor for cohort 13. “You get so many people with so many different perspectives and types of expertise, and they all bounce ideas off each other to make them better,” she notes. “The faculty and staff have so much professional and classroom experience, while the student mentors have seen the program from the inside.”
The student mentors also bring the lessons home in a relatable way, suggests Julie Tricarico ’25, Burke’s friend and a co-mentor for cohort 17. “It makes it easier for the first-years to have someone closer to their age that they connect with on a peer level. It takes some of the pressure off them and they realize it’s okay to ask questions and try new things.”
When the mentors do it right, suggests Bill Robaztek ’24, student mentor for cohort 15, “it’s like the students know they have a friend in the room to rely on.”
For many of the student mentors, coming back is a way to pay forward the mentoring they received. Berenika Belenkley ’24, student mentor for cohort 8, demonstrated her design thinking training during a recent internship with Unum, where she used what she’d learned to empathize with and provide creative solutions for her clients. She refers to her own IDEA experience as “invigorating.”
“IDEA is something that almost no other school has; it’s a real, tangible experience in your first year of college that can set you up for so much success in your coursework and in whatever job you pursue,” she says.
The mentors also mix in playfulness – including team-building activities and wildly decorated cohort rooms – with three days of learning. “My mentor was very fun and connected with all of us in my cohort,” remembers Tricarico. “I just want to give back to the first- year class and make sure they have a really great experience as well.”
Being involved with IDEA, the student mentors say, is also a chance to make important connections. “My goal is for my cohort of students to recognize me as a friendly face, and that they learn I’m someone who they can go to if they ever need anything, whether it’s during IDEA or just even if they see me walking around campus afterwards,” says Burke.
The camaraderie that IDEA inspires, says Conor Kincaid ’24, student mentor for cohort 34, is one of the reasons the program is so successful. “I think what unites us is that every single mentor cares.”
Sure, being an IDEA student mentor can be a lot of work, says Robaztek, “but it doesn’t feel like work, because we’re all having a good time together.”