Sep. 8—MANKATO — As nervous freshmen got their first taste of their next four years at East and West high schools, nearly 200 volunteers were giving up their last day of summer to welcome their younger peers.
Upperclassmen mentors led school tours and icebreaker games and provided other support during freshmen orientation Wednesday.
"It definitely makes you feel more welcomed and included," said East freshman Jackson Henkels.
The freshmen and their new older friends will reconnect monthly for fun and advice as the school year progresses.
It's the 15th year Mankato freshmen were welcomed by members of the Link Crew. It's a national mentoring program led locally by teacher advisers.
Dakota Meadows and Prairie Winds middle schools have a similar program called Where Everybody Belongs. Eighth graders will welcome sixth graders Friday.
There are nearly 70 Link Crew leaders at West and 80 at East. Along with volunteering their last day of summer before classes begin Thursday, they also volunteered some of their summer for training, calling freshmen to introduce themselves, and helping families find their way around the schools on back-to-school nights last month.
Another group of about 10 sophomores at each school volunteered making welcome banners, handing out name tags on orientation day and providing other logistical support.
The volunteers don't receive extra credit or any other such external reward. Yet more students apply to serve than are need. The volunteers are selected based on teacher recommendations and group interviews, advisers said. They also seek volunteers from diverse backgrounds.
The student leaders say the reward is self-fulfillment.
"It just feels so good helping someone," West senior Ahmed Hassan said.
"It feels good to know you're making a difference in school," echoed East senior Aidan Kennedy.
West senior Emily Bloemke said it also is helping her build leadership skills.
"It's an amazing opportunity to make connections and be a leader at your school," she said.
After kickoff assemblies in gymnasiums Wednesday morning, pairs of Link Crew leaders led small groups of freshmen on school tours, organized games and other activities, and answered questions.
East freshman Madison Harbarth said she's still a little apprehensive about high school classes being harder than middle school. But her time with Link Crew made her less nervous about navigating a new school building and more excited to meet new friends.
Link Crew leaders will continue to meet periodically with their small groups for social or educational activities. Before finals week, for example, they traditionally meet to provide study tips.
Multiple leaders said Wednesday morning they're excited to share advice like they received when they were freshmen.
"We get to pay it forward," said East senior Emily Frutos Krueger.
The tips have ranged from the best cafeteria lunch choices to the quickest routes between classrooms. Multiple mentors said they would encourage freshmen to get involved in extracurriculars and attend school events.
"Make the best of the experience because it goes by so fast," Hassan said. "You've got to go to games. You've got to make new friends. You've got to ask that girl out. These are the golden years."