UC Berkeley mentorship programs bridge gap between K-12, college students

Miquela Kallenberger/Courtesy

Related Posts

From tutoring middle school students in Common Core math to developing a “personal connection” with elementary school students from marginalized communities, UC Berkeley mentorship programs cater to a wide variety of students in the community.

Programs such as Project SMILE, Sage Mentorship Project, or Sage, Berkeley United in Literacy Development, or BUILD, and Bridging Berkeley offer campus students the opportunity to engage with students throughout the community in both academic and nonacademic settings.

Project SMILE, which pairs campus students with students from Longfellow Middle School and Willard Middle School, aims to promote “appreciation of diversity, leadership abilities, educational awareness and a proactive sense of community” in both the mentors and mentees.

Miquela Kallenberger, a liaison for Project SMILE, joined the organization before it expanded to Willard Middle School. She said that since joining, she has witnessed it grow into one of the largest student-run, one-on-one mentoring organizations on campus.

At the beginning of each semester, board members interview each mentor and mentee to learn more about their personalities and eventually pair them based on similar interests and compatibility, according to Project SMILE External Coordinator Tarun Mendoza.

Beyond mentor-mentee relationships, Kallenberger also highlighted the bonding activities between mentors such as socials, hiking trips and even karaoke parties.

“We definitely try to build a strong community within our mentors,” Kallenberger said. “You start with wanting to help kids and be in the community, but you stay for the friendships you make with the mentors.”

LaTasha Mitchell has been the Berkeley LEARNS After School Program specialist/coordinator at Longfellow Middle School for about four years and has worked closely with Project SMILE. Mitchell said in an email that it would be nice to have the mentors engage with their mentees more than once or twice a week, but she nevertheless described the experience as “fulfilling.”

Mitchell added that she would like to have enough time at the beginning of the year to train all the mentors, adding that the program could benefit from providing more campus visit opportunities for mentees so they can experience “college life.”

Similar to Project SMILE, Sage also offers a one-on-one mentoring experience, but with elementary school students from 11 “underserved” schools in Berkeley and Oakland.

According to Sage External Vice President Olivia Zaller, a defining feature of the program is consistency, as mentors are required to visit their mentees for at least one hour per week. She added that she enjoys seeing students join as freshmen and stay with the same mentees until graduation, cultivating a “deep, personal connection.”

“Mentors in our program have the opportunity to really make an impact on a child’s life and ideally form a relationship with their mentee that long outlasts their time at Cal,” Zaller said in an email.

Zaller added that mentee safety is one of Sage’s top priorities, stating in an email that mentors are always supervised by a school district employee when interacting with mentees. The program also keeps close contact with the schools’ liaisons and teachers in case problems arise, and all Sage mentors are required to attend “extensive” informational sessions, site-specific orientations and a one-unit DeCal.

“It is impossible to prepare anybody for every possible situation. Understanding this, we at Sage encourage a culture of asking for help and sharing experiences,” Zaller said in an email.

Both Mendoza and Zaller spoke to the diversity of applicants that Project SMILE and Sage receive, respectively. Mendoza added that although many mentors do express an interest in childhood education, he has also seen mentors with majors varying from molecular and cell biology to chemistry.

Other campus mentorship programs focus on providing mentorship in specific academic subjects — BUILD specializes in literacy mentoring for elementary students, and Bridging Berkeley aims to mentor middle school students in math.

According to Bridging Berkeley K-14 Programs Manager Carrie Donovan, the program aims to help Berkeley students transition to the recently implemented Common Core math curriculum. In particular, Bridging Berkeley aims to help middle school students who were not exposed to Common Core math in elementary school.

Sydney Horanic, co-director of Bridging Berkeley at Longfellow Middle School, said that through Bridging Berkeley, the mentors form close relationships with students and occasionally have to make difficult decisions.

Horanic recalls a recent incident in which a mentee she is close with had written “self-deprecating” phrases in her binder regarding a quiz grade. Ultimately, Horanic had to decide between letting the student continue motivating herself in a way that might work for her and offering the student more positive alternatives.

Whether it is a situation that involves sitting down and talking with the student or approaching a figure of authority, Horanic said training for real-life situations is “super important.”

“All children are different, and the situations we encounter at our sites are influenced by a wide host of factors,” Zaller said in an email. “These include … the extent of a child’s social-emotional development, and the many socioeconomic factors that create inequitable circumstances for students in marginalized communities.”

Sabina Mahavni covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sabina_mahavni.