Students Thrive through Mentoring Program

Gabriel “Gabe” Lopez Jr. with Matthew Pucciarelli
January 29, 2018

The growing success of the St. John’s University Student And Faculty Engagement (SAFE) program was celebrated by more than 80 members of the University community at a recognition dinner held on the Queens, NY, campus on November 15. 

The second annual event, hosted by Dr. Gempesaw, celebrated the achievements of the SAFE program—a unique mentoring experience that uses individual pairing to provide first-year students with mentors at St. John’s who help them successfully transition from high school to college.

Volunteer mentors comprised of faculty, administrators, and staff make early outreach to specific incoming first-year students. Mentors then maintain regular contact with their mentees throughout their first year to help them with academic achievement and social adjustment. SAFE has worked with a total of 890 students since its inception in 2011 and currently has 51 volunteer mentors.

Founded by Andrew Ferdinandi, Ed.D., Associate Professor of Counselor Education in The School of Education, the SAFE program has worked to ensure student success by helping students navigate the many challenges associated with making the transition to college life. The SAFE program builds upon the sense of welcome, comfort, and student-faculty engagement that are the hallmarks of the St. John’s University experience.

At the dinner, third-year student Gabriel “Gabe” Lopez, Jr. of Los Angeles, CA, shared how the SAFE program transformed his  St. John’s experience. Gabe, a visually-impaired student who is a double major in Psychology and Italian with a minor in Legal Studies, traveled across the country to attend college. Before arriving on campus, Gabe joined the SAFE program and was paired with his mentor, Matthew Pucciarelli, Associate Provost of Global Studies. 

Gabe described how during his first year at St. John’s, many of his fears of attending college in a new city were quickly put at ease because of the supportive attention provided to him through the SAFE program. Gabe recounted how his mentor immediately helped him adjust to college life through regular contact, personal meetings, and interactions both on- and off-campus. “Matt is a great support to me, and I have a real passion for the work of the SAFE program,” said Gabe.

Demonstrating the lasting impact the SAFE program has had on him, after a successful first year on campus, Gabe became more engaged in campus life. He has served as a resident advisor, and is now preparing to spend a semester abroad studying in Rome this summer.

As a junior, Gabe now serves as a mentor to a first-year student.  “I am excited to have an opportunity to have an impact on other students,” said Gabe, adding, “both sides of the SAFE program offer lasting rewards.”

“The SAFE program is terrific because you get to meet and know our students up close,” said Mr. Pucciarelli. “It has been a great privilege for me to be a mentor.”

During the dinner, Dr. Gempesaw surprised Dr. Ferdinandi by presenting him with the Outstanding Faculty Achievement Award. Dr. Gempesaw praised Dr. Ferdinandi for his commitment to living the Vincentian mission of St. John’s by working to establish and grow the SAFE program to ensure student success and transform lives. 

In his remarks, Dr. Gempesaw noted that retention rates of students participating in the SAFE program exceed the retention rates for undergraduates studying on the Queens campus. 

“When you give of yourself voluntarily—that is true love,” said Dr. Gempesaw. “Here at St. John’s University, we have people who show true love for our students.” Dr. Gempesaw continued, “By making a real impact on our students, SAFE mentors are working to transform lives, and in acting as volunteer mentors, they, too, are having their lives transformed.”

“When you step outside of yourself to extend a hand to help others, you are doing the work of St. Vincent, and you are doing valuable work here at St. John’s University,” said Dr. Ferdinandi. “When I come to campus, I never tell my family I am going to work. I tell them that I am going to St. John’s.”