UC Berkeley students need to mentor Berkeley middle school students

Two Cal students and two middle school students sitting in a classroom
Ashley Zhang/Staff

UC Berkeley is currently home to several youth mentoring organizations, but few specialize in mentoring middle school-age students, a fact that undermines the importance of working with students at this age level. In fact, adolescents in middle school are at the prime age to receive meaningful mentorship and benefit the most from such mentoring programs.

Before entering high school, students are still forming their identities and developing crucial cognitive abilities that are often more strongly influenced by human relationships than by learning out of books in classrooms. At this point of life, they are not preparing for college applications or AP tests, nor are they still learning basic skills or introductory academics as they might have at the elementary level. Rather, they are beginning to imagine how they would like to shape their future while looking to role models who may or may not be present in their lives. Moreover, the neurological window closes when students reach about 16 years of age; afterward, it becomes much harder for them to develop positive behaviors such as motivation and goal-seeking that ultimately drive them to perform well in high school, both academically and socially with their peers.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between mentoring and tutoring, a line sometimes blurred in campus organizations. Though assistance in academics is important, mentees also require guidance in other parts of life, especially with rising numbers of households where parents cannot as easily provide emotional and social care for their children on top of supplying their basic needs. The development of the relationship between the mentor and mentee as more than an educator and a student is vital to the success of the mentoring. Mentees who feel that their mentors are present, attentive and relatable while still respectful of the mentee’s ability to think for his or herself — especially for middle schoolers at an age where independence is particularly alluring — benefit the most from mentorship programs. In fact, those programs that strive for the model provided by Big Brothers Big Sisters, or BBBS, have a significant impact on their communities, with mentors who aim to serve more as an “older sibling” to their mentees than solely as an authority figure or teacher. Studies have found that students involved with BBBS actually gained confidence in academics and skipped half as many days as their peers. These statistics provide an optimistic view on the effect of mentorship at the middle school level.

Mentoring middle schoolers in the Berkeley area may become even more significant when considering demographics. In the city of Berkeley, more than 50 percent of the population is white. Why, then, do white households make up 81 percent of households that earn more than $200,000 per year, compared to only 12 percent Asian and 7 percent combined Latinx, Black and mixed-race? Moreover, the median income of white households in Berkeley is $88,600, compared to that of Black households at a median of $29,900 per year. Within California more generally, almost half of Black families have a median income between $40,000 and $50,000. These disparities can be further examined in unemployment rates — 9.51 percent among Black people and only 4.32 percent among white people. The numbers speak for themselves — disparities exist for people of color at all levels, from education to employment and onward. Therefore, mentoring students of color at an early stage of development could have significant impacts.

With these statistics in mind, we need to also take a look at ourselves. Despite our surrounding city’s demographics, only 14 percent of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate population is Latinx, and an even lower 3 percent is Black. One course of action that we must take as students to enact change is to actively get involved in our local community. The students in the Berkeley Unified School District are about 16 percent Black, 15 percent Latinx and 14 percent mixed, meaning that participation in mentoring programs such as Project SMILE or OASES will more than likely lead to involvement of mentoring middle schoolers both at a vital time in their life and from an underrepresented background.

Especially where systemic racial disparity can be so plainly seen, we as UC Berkeley students should proactively engage with our community by reaching out through avenues such as our existing mentoring organizations. The small commitment of mentoring a student could have an exponential impact on the rest of their lives and, hopefully, change the future of the Berkeley community.

Lucy Li is the co-internal coordinator of Project SMILE and a sophomore at UC Berkeley.