How Project SMILE creates family through mentorship

Project SMILE pairs UC Berkeley students with local middle schoolers to be mentors
William Bennett/Staff

Last fall, freshman Gwyneth Tran was like all her others peers — trying to find a community and sense of belonging within the larger UC Berkeley campus. Although she was already part of another Berkeley outreach group, she was instantly captivated when she witnessed the close relationship between a Cal mentor and middle school mentee from another organization.

That organization was Project SMILE, and after seeing the love and respect she saw between the two, Tran applied to the program this semester.

Project SMILE is the largest student-run, one-on-one mentoring organization at UC Berkeley, according to head coordinator Jonathan Huang; it boasts 112 members, each of whom is matched with a middle school student based off shared personalities, interests and hobbies.

Huang also explained that this tight-knit, familial dynamic is not out of the ordinary for Project SMILE mentorships.

“It’s nice to help kids with homework, but I like that this club emphasizes the relationship more than the academics,” said Huang. “That’s why we’re a mentoring program and not a tutoring program.”

Mentors visit their assigned middle schools once or twice a week. There, they help their mentees with homework in the first half, but they then participate in free time by hanging out, playing games or going outside.

Project SMILE also hosts events relating to science or culture.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day and during Black History Month this last year, for example, mentors hosted a workshop where the students cut out a shape of their hand and wrote down their dreams. Other workshop topics have varied from slime creation to egg drops to Chinese New Year lantern decoration.

Project SMILE’s base of operations for about 20 years has been Longfellow Middle School, but the club recently added Willard Middle School to its roster last semester.

“It’s important for our students to be able to get one-on-one access to young adults that are currently in college,” said Kemal Stewart, the after school program director for Willard LEARNS at Willard Middle School, in an email. “Project SMILE mentors relate well to our students and help them in various areas such as academics, homework help, social issues and more.”

Project SMILE’s scope, however, goes beyond the classroom. From baseball games to city scavenger hunts to simply spending time together, Huang said Project SMILE prizes itself on fostering intimate relationships where mentees can depend on the mentors outside of the school environment.

Sophomore Eduardo Carrizosa, who has been a member for the past three semesters, said his mentee Rony frequently refers to him as his older brother.

“It really warms my heart that I left such an impact on his life for him to call me his family, even though we just met last year,” Carrizosa said.

Tran has a similar relationship with her mentee. She is conscious about being a role model — having experienced the role of being an older sister — and encourages Emily in her schoolwork and endeavors.

“I just want to be someone who my mentee can talk to about anything.”

— Gwyneth Tran

“I just want to be someone who my mentee can talk to about anything,” said Tran. “So whether my mentee is having family issues or academic issues or wants some middle school advice … I want to be someone they can talk to, someone they can trust, someone they know can always be there for them.”

Middle school can be a tumultuous time, according to Stewart. These past two semesters, she said she could recall of at least two instances where her students found a way to avoid conflict thanks to the guidance their mentors provided.

Stewart added in an email that his students look forward to seeing their mentors every week, as well as the various activities Project SMILE offers.

According to Huang, the club is also dedicated to making sure no mentor feels left behind. Through small contact groups, mentor socials and shared commutes, Project SMILE tries to address issues as they crop up and ensure that its board members are the first line of communication if anything goes amiss.

Many of the members attest to the friendly atmosphere of the club. Carrizosa cited it as the main reason he joined and has stayed with Project SMILE for so long.

“We’re all very different people from different majors and different backgrounds,” Huang stated. “Everyone is so nice in a way I didn’t feel like I had experienced in any other clubs I joined previously.”

The current Project SMILE has evolved considerably from when it was originally founded in 1999 by Asian American Association, or AAA, members Teddy Liaw and Caroline Lee.

Liaw, who graduated in 2001, created Project SMILE as an extension of AAA. As a double major in ethnic studies and business, as well as someone who grew up during the times of the Los Angeles riots, Liaw said he was especially interested in race relations between Asian American and Black individuals.

“The only way people break down any -ism of our world … sexism, racism, ageism … is through human-to-human contact and interaction.”

— Teddy Liaw

Liaw commended the changes Project SMILE has implemented since its inception. He remarked on how the number of mentors has doubled and that its membership is now inclusive to UC Berkeley students from different walks of life.

“The whole catalyst, the whole idea behind Project SMILE was how do we take middle-class, upper-middle-class students from Berkeley who are highly educated, affluent and academically accomplished, and how do we put them in a completely different world?” said Liaw. “The only way people break down any -ism of our world … sexism, racism, ageism … is through human-to-human contact and interaction.”

Tran’s first mentee, Emily, will be graduating this year. Although Tran will be rematched with a new middle school student, her old mentee will still have her number on hand when she goes to Berkeley High School.

Contact Fionce Siow at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fioncesiow.

A previous version of this article used the incorrect pronouns to refer to Kamel Stewart.
A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Longfellow Middle School has been the home base of Project SMILE for more than 20 years. In fact, it has been the home base for about 20 years.