In the Community

Project Connect

Project Connect at Mount Mercy University
by Amanda Mayotte ’15

In Fall 2017, Mount Mercy University launched Project Connect, a program designed to equip first-generation or underrepresented students to develop the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to achieve success. 

Participating students attend a three-week residential transition program that includes an introductory psychology of adjustment course, awareness of campus resources, personal advising, and study sessions. They also engage in weekly workshops, panel discussions, and mentoring programs.

In its second year, Project Connect Director Isaiah Corbin says the program has seen positive results in its goals of launching students into a successful first year of college, developing leadership skills, and preparation for future careers.

In 2017, 60 students participated in the program. That number expanded to 132 in 2018.

“It has been an amazing honor to walk alongside the students in Project Connect over the past year,” Corbin says. “They have persisted and overcome many struggles. They have turned what many perceive as a disadvantage into an advantage. After reflecting on the past year, I can see how far they have come in such a little time and the impact they have made on this campus. They are truly a special group of students, and my pride in them grows with each passing day.”

Major/Minor: Marketing/PR
Hometown: Iowa City, Iowa

College was not a part of Aileen Dalia Castaneda’s ’21 plan. To her, college was only a dream.

Coming from a Hispanic back-ground and living in a primarily Spanish-speaking household, school was a challenge. Homework help from parents was difficult because of the language barrier. Staying after class for help was also difficult—the family had one car and Castaneda’s father worked late. On top of that, she struggled with ADHD but wasn’t diagnosed until the end of her junior year.

“I thought to myself, ‘Better late than never, right?’” She worked to correct the negative effects of ADHD, like procrastination, forgetfulness, and difficulty focusing. 

She received strength and encouragement from a teacher in the Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates program and, by her senior year, Castaneda proved she was more resilient than her barriers. She quickly took the ACT exam, applied, and was accepted at MMU. 

Castaneda was a part of the first Project Connect cohort and feels the program is the best thing that could happen to any first-generation college student. “Project Connect helped me get organized with things I didn’t think were that important before. I learned that making relationships is what helps you succeed in college.”


Major/Minor: English/Communication
Hometown: Charles City, Iowa

Caroline Groesbeck ’21 keeps herself busy. She grew up on a dairy farm, was in 4-H, volunteered for her church, worked part time after school, and was in band and tennis throughout high school.

Now in her sophomore year of college, things haven’t changed. She holds a student-worker position in campus dining, is a writing center tutor, plays trumpet in the Mount Mercy band, and is editor-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times student newspaper.

“Being this busy has made me realize how precious time is,” says Groesbeck. “I am less likely to waste someone else’s time because I have very little time to relax. I know what it’s like to constantly be going.”

She says her time with Project Connect has helped develop important time management skills. 

“I learned that you have to schedule your time if you hope to know where you are in your classes and what needs to be done.”

Groesbeck also says Project Connect has taught her patience and responsibility. 

“I’m not always easy to work with, nor is everyone else. If I keep that in mind, along with the fact that sometimes people just have a bad day, it is a lot easier to work with others.”


Major/Minor: Social Work/Business
Hometown: Iowa City, Iowa 

Alma Apolonio Bernal ’21 is working toward a future where everyone has the resources needed to be successful. Her drive was born out of an adverse past and the people who helped her family.

“I’m grateful for all the opportunities that my family has received,” Apolonio Bernal says. “We went from experiencing homelessness to being a homeowner thanks to Habitat for Humanity.”

Apolonio Bernal is a first-generation student at Mount Mercy. “Simple acts of kindness helped me get where I am.”

She is also grateful for MMU, where she was awarded the McAuley Scholarship, a four-year, free-tuition scholarship given to low-income Iowa students. 

“Project Connect helped me get to know the different resources and staff, so during the school year I’m not afraid to ask for help or admit that I have no idea what I’m doing,” she says.

Apolonio Bernal is a student ambassador, orientation leader, peer minister, service trip leader, peer academic coach, and secretary for MMU’s Spanish Club. 

Her future plans include creating a program that encourages Hispanic/Latino students to go to college because “everyone has the ability to do it if they work hard,” she says.


Major: International Studies
Hometown: Grundy Center, Iowa

For Jacob Waltersdorf ’21, change has been one of the biggest life obstacles to overcome. But with focus and acceptance, he continues to prevail.

“I’ve seen how beneficial it is to just take a step back and relax,” he says. “It’s easier to focus on your goals when you can ignore minor distractions, like things you cannot control.”

Project Connect was just one change in a mounting pile his freshman year, and Waltersdorf had trouble adjusting. But when he began to embrace Project Connect, the benefits soon followed. He says the program helped advance his leadership and social skills as well as to cultivate many lifelong skills.

“One big thing Project Connect taught me was that it’s okay to struggle a little bit. Without Project Connect, I would have felt so alone when I hit my first academic roadblocks, but having a community that showed me and told me that I was not going through this solo helped me grow exponentially as a student.”

Waltersdorf expects to use these skills in his future career. He aspires to work and live in a Spanish-speaking country. “I’m using college to not only get a degree, but to develop vital social, networking, and leadership skills that will set me ahead of my competition in the workforce.”


Majors: Social Work and Psychology
Hometown: Van Horne, Iowa

When Oceana Papakee ’21 moved to Van Horne, Iowa, in sixth grade, she experienced culture shock. Papakee endured countless insensitive questions as a Native American in a predominately white school—but she used those experiences to educate rather than get angry.

“I had people asking me questions like, ‘Do you still live in teepees?’ ‘Where do you use the bathroom?’  ‘Do you have a horse or car?’” she says. “I honestly couldn’t believe it!”

Although the experiences were hurtful, Papakee learned an important lesson. “I couldn’t get mad at them because they simply didn’t know. I had to educate them. They had never seen someone different than them. This experience showed me that people need to interact or have some knowledge on the different minorities we have in the United States.”

Project Connect helped Papakee realize her leadership potential. She uses what she learned years ago and applies it to her many roles on campus, where she is a student leader in dining services, on the track and field team, and a part of MMU’s Spanish Club.

Papakee hopes to receive her doctorate in social work, which would be a first in her family. “My dream is to start my own program that helps children living in poverty. ”