After finding it nearly impossible to sort through the hundreds of campus resources posted on Facebook when COVID-19 first hit, UC Berkeley junior and first-generation college student Johnny Nguyen sought to improve resource access for students by creating Connect@Cal.
Since June, the organization, which Nguyen founded with campus senior Ethan Chiu and campus junior Eric Cheng, has pointed about 70 students in the direction of resources and provided more than 120 suggestions for support. Connect@Cal’s quick development was motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Nguyen, who said the speed of making the project available was a high priority.
“We didn’t have to wait for permission,” Nguyen said. “We could put up a Google form and a basic website, and it would work.”
Students looking for campus resources can submit a Google form on Connect@Cal’s website, explaining the nature of their issue or request. The Connect@Cal team, currently numbering 25, then responds to the request with a personal list of relevant resources.
Nguyen added that another goal of Connect@Cal is to provide the ASUC and campus with data regarding which resources are needed and which are popular.
For Nguyen, experience with the ASUC, including his current role as chief of staff for the ASUC president, was crucial, as it helped him partner with various organizations and communicate with campus administration. He added that the process would have been impossible if he had not already established connections through the ASUC.
“I’m one of few students from my community to go to Berkeley,” Nguyen said. “It was so daunting navigating campus and hard to enter spaces without knowing people and having social capital.”
One of Nguyen’s current priorities is finding a source of funding to pay the program’s caseworkers.
An avenue Nguyen said he is exploring is a “co-leadership” partnership model with the campus Division of Student Affairs. According to ASUC President Victoria Vera, whose office is backing the project, partnering with campus could create an opportunity to ensure the program’s long-term stability in addition to funding.
“I cannot have (the program) die,” Nguyen said. “Students will become dependent on it some day.”
Nguyen also said he is creating a “digital adviser” that will send regular follow-up emails to students’ original requests when new resources are found.
Cheng added that Connect@Cal is also working to develop an artificial intelligence chat bot for its website, which will more quickly help students who have less personalized requests.
“We want to create a feature that allows for us to create some sort of virtual mentorship program,” Chiu said. “We want to be there for students throughout their years at Cal.”